Massachusetts: Fifth District|
Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D)
Last Updated June 8, 1999
The Merrimack River Valley at the northern edge of Massachusetts has had an erratic history: high-tech boom, bust, boom, bust, boom. When Massachusetts was a kind of maritime republic in the 19th Century, with a few farmers struggling to scratch out a living from the stony soil, a few clever Yankees used their profits from the sea trade to try to tame the rapidly flowing Merrimack and build cotton spinning mills. Creating the cities of Lowell and Lawrence, they built model dormitories and recreation programs for their women workers. This was the center of America's textile industry for more than a century, long after the maritime industry faded. But in the 1920s, the price of labor rose and newly built mills in the Carolinas--much closer to the cotton supply--decimated the industry that Lawrence and Lowell built. Many residents--by then rather elderly--waited forlornly for an upturn in the local economy.
It came eventually, largely due to an unexpected source. High-tech industry drove the growth, beginning in the 1960s around MIT, then moving out to the Route 128 ring road and then I-495, which passes through Lowell and Lawrence. Wang, headquartered in Lowell, grew spectacularly, and former Congressman and Senator Paul Tsongas spearheaded a national historical restoration of the old mill area. This was the Massachusetts miracle of the early 1980s. Then came the bust: Wang's word processors and minicomputers slumped as businesses purchased personal computers and hooked them together in networks. But Lowell revived again. Its new immigrants--mostly from Cambodia and Puerto Rico--provide vitality and entrepreneur creativity; the old Wang buildings are filled with health care, banking, telecommunications and Internet companies. Paul Tsongas died in January 1997, but lived long enough to see Lowell on the move again, rehabbing the River Place Towers, renovating the Bon Marche and building the Paul Tsongas Arena. And high-tech growth boomed in the smaller towns all around.
The 5th Congressional District includes Lawrence and Lowell, which along with next-door towns account for about half the district's population. The remainder of the district includes the high-tech corridor further south on I-495, running from the stony hills of Lawrence and Lowell to Maynard and Marlborough. The district also includes fancy suburbs like Concord, aging mill towns like Ayer and the mountains along the New Hampshire state line. Except for Lowell and Lawrence, it is ancestrally Yankee Republican. It is culturally liberal and trended toward the Democrats in the early 1970s. But in the 1980s and 1990s, amid the high-tech boom, it went Republican in national and even statewide elections: a kind of Baja New Hampshire. In 1992 it gave Bill Clinton his lowest percentage in the state, while a big vote went to high-tech pioneer Ross Perot; in 1996, unnerved by the Republican revolutionaries, it went heavily Democratic.
The congressman from the 5th District is Martin Meehan, a Democrat elected in 1992. Meehan grew up in Lowell, one of seven children of a Lowell Sun typesetter. As a child, he memorized President Kennedy's speeches from long-playing records, kept a scrapbook on Robert Kennedy, and idolized Edward Kennedy, who was elected to the Senate when Meehan was 5. He is a lifelong politico: he was an aide to Congressman James Shannon while working on his masters degree, worked in the Massachusetts secretary of state's office after law school, and was first assistant district attorney in Middlesex County from 1990 until he ran for Congress in 1992. He took on eight-year incumbent Democrat Chester Atkins, who was hurt when he alienated an old ally, state Senate President Billy Bulger, who with Governor William Weld kept Lawrence and Lowell, where Atkins was highly unpopular, in the district. Meehan beat Atkins by the astonishing margin of 65%-35%, winning the Lowell-Lawrence area 75%-25%. In the general, Meehan faced former Congressman Paul Cronin, who beat John Kerry in 1972 (the only open seat carried by George McGovern to also elect a Republican to the House), but lost to Paul Tsongas in 1974. Meehan called for a 50% defense cut, targeted capital gains tax cuts, income tax increases, and backed the balanced budget amendment and term limits--he won 52%-38%.
Meehan combines a mostly liberal voting record with distinctive stands on issues; this has gotten him labeled a maverick. One of his crusades is against tobacco; his father, a smoker, had heart surgery when Marty was 11. In his first term he worked with Henry Waxman when he was conducting hearings with tobacco company heads and called for more prominent warnings on cigarette packages. After the 1994 election, Meehan prepared a 111-page memo urging prosecution of tobacco companies, and later joined with Utah Republican James Hansen to sponsor a bill with a $1.50 a pack tax and a target of cutting youth smoking by 80%.
His other great cause is campaign finance reform. In 1997, with Christopher Shays and Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain, Meehan co-sponsored the campaign finance plan whose eventual final version would outlaw soft money and foreign money, subject non-candidate ads to disclosure and contribution limit requirements, strengthen FEC enforcement powers, require posting of forms on the Internet, and create a commission to recommend more reforms. When House Republican leaders refused to let the measure come to the floor, Meehan and others gathered signatures on a discharge petition; under such pressure, the leadership finally allowed a vote in August 1998, and it passed 252-179, with 61 Republican votes. But no vote was taken in the Senate, and in early 1999, Meehan again was trying to get a House vote to put more pressure on the Senate to act.
Meehan serves on the Armed Services Committee and has generally moved to cut defense spending, but boosts Raytheon and its upgrades of the Patriot missile. Over the years, his voting record seems to have drifted left: He voted for NAFTA in 1993 and against fast track in 1997. He was staunchly against impeachment and peppered the House deliberations with remarks assailing Republicans for partisanship. He has worked on local projects, getting $11.9 million in highway projects in 1998, working for a Lowell baseball stadium and preservation of O'Rourke's farm in Carlisle.
When Meehan ran in 1992, he pledged to serve no more than four terms. In January 1999 he appeared to change his mind. For this he was attacked by Massachusetts colleagues, who were irritated by his support of campaign finance reform (though on the record they're for it) and for other maverick tendencies, such as introducing Republican Paul Cellucci as ''a friend'' at a women's issues forum he hosted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in Lowell in May 1998. As Meehan has explained, ''I didn't like being a backbencher until the Democrats took back Congress. That made some--Moakley and Barney Frank--question my loyalty. But I got elected at a different time than they did, and my view of what Democrats need to learn to be an effective minority party is different, too.'' In a May 1999 letter to his constituents, Meehan finally declared he would seek a fifth term, saying ''I have come to realize over the past seven years that, with the failure of term limits nationally, to arbitrarily limit my own service puts the people I represent at a disadvantage.'' He had more than $1 million in campaign finances left over from the 1998 election.
Probably Safe. Meehan, who pledged to serve only four terms during his 1992 race, announced in spring 1999 that he will run for re-election in 2000. While this has raised the ire of national term limits proponents, it is unlikely to cause Meehan to lose the election in the heavily Democratic district.
- Pop. 1990: 601,527
- 16% rural;
11% age 65+;
- 89.6% White,
0.2% Amer. Indian,
8% Hispanic origin;
58.4% married couple families;
29.8% married couple fams. w. children;
51.7% college educ.;
median household income: $42,701;
per capita income: $18,293;
median gross rent: $526;
median house value: $174,200.
|1996 Presidential Vote|
|1992 Presidential Vote|
National Journal Group offers both print and electronic reprint services, as well as permissions for academic use, photocopying and republication. Click here to order, or call us at 877-394-7350.