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5th District Elects Tsongas

This article is more than 12 years old.

The widow of 1992 presidential candidate Paul Tsongas defeated the brother of an American Airlines pilot slain in the Sept. 11 terror attacks Tuesday in the special election to replace Democrat Martin Meehan in the U.S. House.

Democrat Niki Tsongas of Lowell edged Republican Jim Ogonowski of Dracut, whose brother John died when his plane was hijacked and flown in the World Trade Center. Tsongas won 51 percent, or 54,363 votes, compared to 45 percent or 47,770 votes for Ogonowski with all precincts reporting.

Tsongas could be sworn in as early as Wednesday to fill the seat once held by her late husband. The seat was left empty in July when Democrat Martin Meehan resigned to become chancellor of his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Tsongas, 61, a dean at Middlesex Community College, becomes the only woman in the state's 10-member House delegation and the first to represent Massachusetts since 1983, when Republican Margaret Heckler left office.

Tsongas's husband died in 1997 of side-effects from the cancer that prompted him to retire from the Senate in 1985. He beat fellow Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1992 New Hampshire primary during a period of remission.

A crowd of several hundred crowded in a Lowell brew pub cheered when television screens reported the news of Tsongas's victory about 9:15 p.m. Many in the room had been supporters of her husband, veteran sign-carriers who traveled across the nearby New Hampshire border during his 1992 campaign.

Local Democrats took particular pride in Tsongas's victory, especially in the context of potential redistricting. Massachusetts has been losing population and could be forced to surrender one of its 10 House seats after the 2010 Census, but a redistricting plan that eliminated the lone woman in the delegation could be difficult to pass in the Legislature. The former mill city that Paul Tsongas helped turn into a National Park destination has now laid claim to the seat since 1993.

Ogonowski, 50, a family farmer who retired from the Air Force in June after a 28-year career, repeatedly called on the need for tougher immigration laws during the campaign. He won in Andover, Methuen, Tewksbury and his hometown of Dracut. But Tsongas' support in Lowell and Lawrence was enough to earn her the seat.

"Tonight, Jim Ogonowski sent a message to the Washington establishment and the Democratic Party that will reverberate throughout next years election,'' said a statement issued by the National Republican Congressional Committee, before Ogonowski conceded the race. "Democrats have officially forfeited the mantle of change.''

Also on the ballot were Independent candidates Kurt Hayes of Boxborough and Patrick Murphy of Lowell, as well as Constitution Party candidate Kevin Thompson of Brockton, a city located outside the northeastern Massachusetts district. Murphy won 2 percent, or 2,170 votes; Hayes won 1 percent, or 1,125 votes, and Thompson had less than half a percent, or 494 votes.

Both Ogonowski and Tsongas said their race would either serve as a referendum on the policies of President Bush, or mark a public upbraiding of the Democratically controlled House and Senate.

A flashpoint for Tsongas was Bush's veto of expanded funding for the State Children's Health Insurance program. The House is scheduled to vote on a veto override Thursday, and Tsongas lambasted Ogonowski for refusing to say before the election how he would vote.

Ogonowski had said he wouldn't declare his position on the SCHIP bill because he wanted to use his first day in Congress to try to negotiate an alternative. He said the measure, as written, contained loopholes providing coverage to illegal aliens.

On Tuesday, Ogonowski handed out door-hangers bearing the image of actor Jimmy Stewart from the 1939 Frank Capra film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' and said that like the fictitious Jefferson Smith, he wanted to be a plainspoken representative of the people.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who replaced Paul Tsongas in the Senate, congratulated Tsongas. "Tomorrow she will head to Washington to continue one legacy and to begin a new one,'' Kerry said. "Sen. Kennedy, Rep. Markey, and I join the entire delegation in looking forward to working with Niki in Congress.''

The issues of the campaign, supported locally as well as by national Democratic and Republican groups, resonated with voters of both parties.

"I love his issues, as far as dealing with illegal immigrants, not providing in-state tuition for illegals and saying he wants to renegotiate the SCHIP program,'' said Sophia Frawley, 74, as she held at "Ogonowski'' sign outside a Dracut polling place. "Besides, he's a working man, wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Nothing's been handed to him.''

In heavily Democratic Lowell, 84-year-old Robert Dalton said he voted for Tsongas because he was a "yellow-dog Democrat,'' favoring the party even if it would put up a yellow dog against a Republican candidate.

But he said he agreed with Tsongas's call for an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq. "This war is a disgrace,'' Dalton said.

(The Associated Press)

This program aired on October 16, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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