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Can Anyone Beat Niki Tsongas?

The day after Labor Day, voters in the Fifth Congressional District, which stretches from the Merrimack Valley to the Western suburbs of Boston, will vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries.

The seat is open because Marty Meehan resigned earlier this year to take a new job as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

On the Democratic side, one candidate, Niki Tsongas, enjoys the advantage of name recognition. WBUR's Fred Thys spent some time with Tsongas and voters in the Fifth, and has this report.

TEXT OF STORY

NIKI TSONGAS: How are you?

FRED THYS: Niki Tsongas is going door to door around the block in the Pawtucketville section of Lowell, across the Merrimack River from the main part of the city. This is traditionally Lowell's French-Canadian neighborhood.

TSONGAS: It's starting to change a bit, but not tremendously.

THYS: A campaign worker goes ahead of us, knocking on doors, asking people if they want to meet Tsongas. That way, if people don't want to talk to the candidate, she can avoid an embarrassing moment. Perhaps because it's a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon, a lot of people aren't home.

TSONGAS: You can tell. A lot of people are not around. The challenges of summer elections.

THYS: Some have just come home.

VOTER: Actually, I just got out of the shower. We just got back from the beach.
TSONGAS: Oh, okay. Well, welcome back. Day after Labor Day. Hope I earn your vote.
VOTER: Okay, thank you.
TSONGAS: Bye!
VOTER: Bye! Bye!

THYS: Tsongas is 61. She has been going door to door like this since 1969, when she campaigned for her late husband, Paul, who was running for city council.

TSONGAS: I used to come up on the weekends. I was living in New York City. We weren't married then. I used to come up every weekend and go door to door.

THYS: Tsongas is a dean at Middlesex Community College, but as she goes door to door, it's clear that she benefits from the fact that she is the widow of Paul Tsongas, who is still widely respected in the congressional district he represented before being elected to the U.S. Senate.

VOTER: Good luck to you. I'm really going to vote for you. I love Paul. Miss him.
TSONGAS: He was a remarkable...
VOTER: He really was.
TSONGAS: ...politician. Showed us all what can be done in Washington if you commit to it.

THYS: Her six-month campaign seems to have taught her to be careful, guarded. And yet, there are some times when she does seem spontaneous, such as when the conversation turns to what a great place Lowell is, or when she starts talking about the first campaign she ever worked on, for Eugene McCarthy's presidential run, in 1968.

TSONGAS: and the war in Vietnam was a real issue. I can remember being in a like a chamber of commerce early morning breakfast, and him talking about the war and just seeing the commitment he was making as a human being to this important issue.

THYS: Now, Tsongas says her top priority is to end another war.

TSONGAS: Has to be. You know, we need to bring an end the war, create a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops.

THYS: On the home front, Tsongas would like to extend tax credits to people who take care of their parents.

TSONGAS: I did a meals on wheels program as part of this campaign, and it struck me that there were people so intent on staying in their homes, and yet who are very isolated so if there is a way of strengthening that bond and recognizing the important role families play in the life of older people, I thought a tax credit like that would be important.

THYS: Part of the interest that Tsongas seems to be generating comes from the possibility that she could be the first woman from Massachusetts in Congress since Margaret Heckler lost her seat in a runoff with Barney Frank in 1982. After a candidates' forum in the Victorian town hall in Ayer, with its cathedral ceiling and restored chiseled beams, one woman in the audience who declines to give her name puts it this way:

VOTER: I'm just looking at the two woman right now.

TSONGAS: The other woman in the race is Lowell city councilor Eileen Donoghue. For another woman in the audience, Mary Kraft Shirley, the choice also seems to be coming down to the two women in the race.

MARY KRAFT SHIRLEY: I liked Niki Tsongas. I liked her, and I liked Eileen Donoghue. It would be nice if they could run together and both go in service together. I don't know which one I'm going to vote for right now.

TSONGAS: The fact that Tsongas is the widow of Paul Tsongas has opened up a wide-ranging network of contributors for her: people such as Eagles lead singer Don Henley, who worked with Paul Tsongas to protect Walden Pond. As a result, Niki Tsongas is the best-financed candidate in the race. She's raised more than a million dollars. She has five times as many donors as her closest rival, State Representative Barry Finegold, of Andover. Most of her donors are from outside the district, but that's also true of Finegold and of Representative James Miceli, of Wilmington. The money has enabled Tsongas to be on TV, but it's not clear if that will translate into voters. Not many people vote in special elections; organization is usually the key to winning them.

JEFF GERSON: Everyone feels it's Niki Tsongas' race to win or lose.

THYS: Jeff Gerson is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He says a summer campaign, when many paying aren't paying attention, has been good for Tsongas.

GERSON: She has, most importantly, name recognition. There's a very short window for this special election. The Secretary of State did Niki Tsongas a favor by stating that the election would take place on September 4th, the primary.

THYS: Actually, the timing of the election could have been ever better for Tsongas. If Marty Meehan had resigned earlier, the primary could have been before Labor Day, but Secretary of State Bill Galvin persuaded Meehan to postpone his resignation so that the election could be held after Labor Day, and more people would vote.

This program aired on August 21, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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