5th District Issues

Tomorrow, voters in the Fifth District will decide who represents them in Congress.

Five candidates are running, with Democrat Niki Tsongas and Republican Jim Ogonowski representing the two major parties in the race for the nation's only open congressional seat.

WBUR'S Fred Thys looks at the issues that have shaped the race.


FRED THYS: The war, tax cuts, immigration, and health care are driving this race. As he goes door to door in senior housing in Haverhill, Jim Ogonoswki is trying to make social security an issue, but he's brought the wrong brochure!

JIM OGONOWSKI: Couple of things I wanted to point out in here: my commitment to... I guess actually, this one doesn't have it. I have a third one as protectin' Social Security.

VOTER: That's good for me.

OGONOWSKI: I firmly believe that we made a promise to our seniors that Social Security has to be there for'em. I'm not going to cut the benefits. I'm not going to raise taxes. I'm not gonna raise the age of people collectin' Social Security. It's gonna be there.

THYS: Ogonowski has tried to present himself as the candidate running against Washington. University of Massachusetts Lowell Political Science Professor Jeff Gerson says it's a surprising tack.

JEFF GERSON: For a Republican to turn around and make Congress, which his party just recently had control of, the issue is something no one would have predicted.

THYS: Whoever wins tomorrow faces his or her first vote in Congress later this week over whether to override President George Bush's veto of expansion of health care coverage for children. At a rally in Lowell last month, Niki Tsongas promised to vote to override the veto and accused Jim Ogonowski of wanting to sustain it.

NIKI TSONGAS: And my opponent's support of that veto is shameful. (applause)

THYS: Ognonowski opposes the current proposal in Congress, because, he says, it would cover the children of undocumented workers. Tsongas says that couldn't happen, because families would have to show social security numbers. But many undocumented immigrants do have social security numbers. Ogonowski has been hitting the issue of undocumented immigrants repeatedly, but not every voter concerned about this issue is voting for Ogonowski. Here is an exchange between Tsongas and one of her supporters at the senior center in Chelmsford.

VOTER: I wish you luck, and you're gettin' my vote.

TSONGAS: Thank you so much.

VOTER: Really, really.

TSONGAS: Yeah. No, I'm... I appreciate that.

VOTER: Long as you don't get the immigrants here.

THYS: At the debate at UMass Lowell last week, Tsongas said she supports President Bush's proposal to offer illegal immigrants a way to legalize their status. She also proposed to repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest one per cent of Americans.

TSONGAS: And that comes from people who make 450-thousand dollars or above.

THYS: Ogonowski supports the tax cuts. He says they have benefited the average family.

OGONOWSKI: We need to keep the tax cuts permanent. That's $4000 out of the people's pockets in the Fifth District.

THYS: Actually, that's not true. For a family earning the median income in the 5th district, the Bush tax cuts amount to 1690 dollars a year.

Independent candidate Kurt Hayes raised the fact that together, Tsongas and Ogonowski have reported spending more than 1.8 million dollars to influence this election.

KURT HAYES: The Republicans and Democrats are spending hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, to interrupt your evenings with phone calls, to put commercials on your television sets and to flood your mail box with ads that distort each other's positions and demonize the other in hopes of winning this election.

THYS: Constitution Party candidate Kevin Thompson criticized Tsongas for saying she would never cut off funding for the war in Iraq.

KEVIN THOMPSON: You can't be against the war, then be for spending money towards it, and spend it supporting it. You're supporting it, but you're not supporting it. It's wishy-washy.

THYS: Ogonowski wants keep troops in Iraq until the situation is stable enough to turn security over to Iraqi forces, but David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report, believes that Iraq could actually play in Ogonowski's favor and against Tsongas.

DAVID WASSERMAN: This district is 11 points more Democratic than the national average. It's a tragedy for Democrats in Washington that we're even talking about this race, yet we are. It's a reflection of frustration on the part of Republicans with the Democratic Congress, but also Democrats with the Democratic Congress over the inability of the Democrats in Congress to win the battle over bringing the troops home from Iraq.

(Irish music)

THYS: Independent candidate Patrick Murphy recently spoke about Iraq and played in a band with his brother and sister in Ayer, a town with a lot of Army retirees. Murphy wants to increase the income tax on non-military families and dedicate the income to supporting the troops in Iraq. He's presented the idea to the staffs of several members of Congress, where it's been proposed as legislation.

The tax would have to be renewed every year.

PATRICK MURPHY: You have to make sure that everybody in America has some stake in their own security and that they really take responsibility for the choices that they make.

THYS: Even if the 25-year-old Murphy doesn't end up in Congress, his proposal already has. In a way, it's a sign that the big issues being debated in this, the only Congressional election in the country, are being debated nationally.

This program aired on October 15, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


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