Tsongas Wins

The Tsongas name apparently isn’t quite as magical as it once was in Massachusetts. But it’s still enough to get the job done.

In the race to fill the lone vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Niki Tsongas, the widow of former Senator and 1992 presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, eked out a win in the Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ 5 th District last night, defeating her main rival by a 36-32 percent margin. Like each of the Bay State’s 10 congressional districts, the fifth is solidly Democratic, so Tsongas was essentially elected to Congress last night.

The margin, however, was much closer than expected, given the financial advantage Tsongas enjoyed as well as the star power that fueled her bid. Paul Tsongas represented the 5 th in Congress from 1974 until 1978, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He’d previously served on the city council in Lowell, the mill town that anchors the district. A lifelong Lowell resident, Paul Tsongas remains a revered figure in his home city, where the downtown arena bears his name.

Eileen Donoghue, a Lowell city councilwoman (who also served as mayor, a position rotated among the council in Lowell), finished just behind Tsongas in the balloting, followed in the distance by three state legislators.

Ironically, it was Lowell that nearly undercut Niki Tsongas’ bid. Donoghue, who enjoyed substantial backing from the city’s political leaders and organizations and its newspaper, carried it by a two-to-one margin. Tsongas made up just enough ground in the affluent suburban communities in the western part of the district. She also may have been hurt by the timing of the primary, with the day-after-Labor-Day date producing exceptionally low turnout. Tsongas’ name recognition figured to give her an edge with casual voters, most of whom didn’t show up yesterday.

Tsongas’ general election foe is Republican Jim Ogonowski, whose brother piloted one of the American Airlines jets that was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center six years ago. But he is the prohibitive underdog in a district that routinely elected Democrats by lop-sided margins – and in a state that last elected a Republican to Congress in 1994. Assuming she wins, the 61-year-old Tsongas will become the first female to represent Massachusetts in Washington since Margaret Heckler in 1982.