GOP Congressional Contender Makes Taxes His Issue

This article is more than 13 years old.

The sparks are flying between two of the Democratic candidates in Tuesday's primary for the open seat in the Fifth Congressional District.

The district is centered around Lowell, but it stretches all the way to some of the western suburbs of Boston. In the latest tussle, Niki Tsongas is asking Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue to withdraw an ad that implies Tsongas supports the war in Iraq.

Tsongas is for establishing a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Meanwhile, Republicans hope to take the district back for the first time since since Paul Tsongas won the seat in 1974. They're pinning their hopes on the brother of a 9/11 victim. WBUR's Fred Thys reports.


FRED THYS: Jim Ogonowski is walking along a road in Billerica. It's the evening rush hour on an old country lane congested with traffic by suburbanization. McMansions line the road.

JIM OGONOWSKI: If you guys had seen my house... You know, my house might be 1,500 square feet, so when I see a house like that...

THYS: Ogonowski has two reporters and three campaign staffers in tow. There's no sidewalk, so we're in the road--I'm sticking a microphone in his face-- and cars and SUVs are swerving to the middle to avoid hitting us. Ogonowski is having a great time.

OGONOWSKI: Hi! Jim Ogonowski. Running for Congress. Nice to meet you.
HOMEOWNER: Nice to meet you, too.
OGONOWSKI: Appreciate your vote. The primary is Sept. 4.
HOMEOWNER: You already have it.
OGONOWSKI: You doin' a little addition work?
HOMEOWNER: A little.
OGONOWSKI: How old's the little one?
HOMEOWNER: Goin' to be one Sept. 2.


OGONOWSKI: It's amazing what you can pick up about somebody by just standing there for 30 seconds. Not to give you all my little tricks, but I just enjoy that. That's how I've always been, not just because I'm campaigning.

THYS: Ogonowski goes door to door like this for two to three hours every evening. He says older people want to talk about Social Security. People with children want to talk about education. A lot of people are concerned about illegal immigrants.

OGONOWSKI: But the overriding number one issue has to be people are fed up with taxes. Taxes.

THYS: You would think that as a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel with a brother who was killed on 9/11, Ogonowski's top issue wouldn't be taxes, but security. Ogonowki's brother, John, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, died when terrorists crashed his plane into New York's World Trade Center.

THYS: Do you get a lot of recognition for your name, because of your brother?
OGONOWSKI: Yes, I do. I don't know if it's because of my brother, or because I've been running now, for so long. We've had the Ogonowkis' farm that's been in the family for 100 years. That's pretty well known. Any family that's been in the area, I refer to them as the older generations, all know of my family.

THYS: When his brother died, Ogonowski took over the family farm in Dracut, and that's where you can see why taxes are such a big issue for him.

OGONOWSKI: The first couple of years, it was a lot of learning.

THYS: At eight in the morning, Ogonowski is loading hay onto his truck.

OGONOWSKI: Shocking to know, if you look at all these buildings and all the equipment that you see here, the number one cost to produce a bale of hay is taxes.

THYS: In many ways, Ogonowski is a typical Northeastern Republican. He rails against taxes, but supports legal abortion. At a forum in the chapel at Phillips Academy in Andover last week, he explained why he wants to keep troops in Iraq.

OGONOWSKI: Clearly, I think our president was wrong to have invaded Iraq. It was a mistake, and dammit, we didn't have a plan after the first 100 days. But now that's history. We need to go forward. If we were to cut and run from Iraq right now, civil war would break out, and it would infect that entire region. We can't let that happen. We would be back there next year at a greater number than we are now, so we have to work for stability.

THYS: Ogonowski has one opponent in the primary, Framingham actuary Tom Tierney, who criticizes Ogonowski for wanting to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. If Ogonowski beats Tierney in the primary, he has a tough race in the general election: Republicans haven't taken this seat since John Kerry ran in 1972. But they hope Ogonowski can change their luck with his military background, 9/11 connection, and non-ideological approach. After the forum, Peter Koch, of Andover, signed up to volunteer for Ogonowski.

PETER KOCH: Republicans have come pretty close in the Fifth. Historically, this has been one of the more evenly balanced congressional districts. You have to realize that the national parties are going to be taking a very heavy involvement in this race, too, and I think this is going to be a real trophy race for both parties, so you can bet there will be an awful lot of resources dedicated to this contest come November.

THYS: Actually, the general election is in October. The primary is Tuesday.

WBUR, I'm Fred Thys

This program aired on August 29, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.