The million-dollar widow

Why is the Niki Tsongas juggernaut heading backward? Plus, ignoring global warming close to home.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 26, 2007

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DARLING NIKI: The widow of Senator Paul Tsongas has raised more money than her rivals, but is losing ground in the polls.

The powerhouses of Massachusetts’s Democratic Party have rallied behind Niki Tsongas’s bid to succeed Fifth District US Congressman Marty Meehan, and their support has helped bring an impressive million dollars in contributions to her campaign’s coffers. Those party elites assumed that their support and cash, combined with her name recognition, should by now have made her a shoo-in for the nomination: competitors should be dropping out, unions should be clamoring to join her winning team, and polls should show her widening her lead.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening. According to a number of people following the race, the Democratic nomination appears to be as wide open as ever.

In fact, a recent poll conducted by competitor Eileen Donoghue, the former mayor of Lowell, showed that, since the start of the race, Tsongas’s support has dropped from 35 to 26 percent among likely voters in the September 4 Democratic primary. In response, her campaign replaced its field director (in what seemed to be an admission that the campaign was stumbling), hiring Augustus Bickford this past week to improve the ground organization that will make or break the get-out-the-vote effort come Election Day. (Please see Editor's Note, below.)

In a way, Tsongas’s failure to dominate the race is unsurprising — if anything, it’s surprising that the party powers flocked to Tsongas despite her obvious flaws as a candidate. Aside from having been married to the late former senator Paul Tsongas, she has little relevant experience for the job, having never held public office nor played a significant role in any government agency. (Currently she serves as dean of external affairs at Middlesex Community College.) Tsongas also has been living outside the district, and her generally progressive ideology is almost indistinguishable from that of the other major candidates, including Donoghue and State Representatives Barry Finegold and Jamie Eldridge.

That’s not to say that Tsongas would be a poor choice to represent the Fifth District. If their conversations with the Phoenix are any indication, even other campaigns’ staffers seem to like her. But some observers are wondering: why did all the party powerhouses take her side in a race that features several strong Democratic candidates?

Some of the other candidates’ staffs and supporters are miffed that so many top Dems lined up behind Tsongas so quickly. After all, Tsongas’s contributors comprise a virtual Who’s Who of the state’s Democratic fundraisers (Ronald Ansin, Steve Grossman, Alan Solomont, Barry White), former officeholders (Cheryl Cronin, Scott Harshbarger), lobbyists (Thomas O’Neill, Robert White), developers (Robert Beal, Jay Cashman), and cultural leaders (Charles Ansbacher, Susan Paine, Josiah Spaulding).

Plus, many of the most influential women in the state have jumped on her bandwagon. JudyAnn Bigby, Mary Breslauer, Nonnie Burnes, Elyse Cherry, Jane Garvey, Barbara Grossman, Swanee Hunt, Gloria Larson, Barbara Lee, Jesse Mermell, and Elaine Schuster have all contributed to the Tsongas campaign.

It’s the kind of coordinated women’s support you might expect to converge around a promising female politician, but not when two viable women are running against each other. And it’s particularly odd to see politically influential women rejecting Donoghue, the more experienced woman in the race, in favor of the candidate known mostly by her husband’s work. Even EMILY’s List, which routinely promotes women running for office, has taken the unusual step of endorsing and raising money for Tsongas — as if Donoghue didn’t exist.

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