Taking the Fifth

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 22, 2007

Despite Donoghue’s presence, Tsongas has gained the endorsement and fundraising support of EMILY’s List, which backs female candidates nationally, and the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus. Many of the most prominent women in Massachusetts political circles also have endorsed Tsongas, including Kitty Dukakis, Patricia McGovern, Swanee Hunt, Evelyn Murphy, Cheryl Jacques, Angela Menino, Barbara Lee, Lois Pines, Margaret Xifaras, and Andrea Silbert, as well as three state senators and five state representatives.

In June, her campaign gathered 350 women in support of Tsongas, including businesswomen and community activists. There are “Tsisters for Tsongas” events. And the Lowell headquarters of her campaign feature prominent reminders that the state has had more than two decades of exclusively male representation.

Tsongas’s campaign is, however, far more discreet about referring directly to her late husband. He is mentioned in few materials, and his instantly recognizable, cherubic Greek face is nearly absent. The TV ad she’s been airing speaks of her father, a World War II hero, more than her late husband.

But indirect references are constant. Tsongas is actively trading on Paul’s popularity, boasting of the Washington connections she made during his time in office and while he ran for president in 1992. She paints herself as his political partner — one campaign promo piece even says that, in 1978, “Paul and Niki won” the election for US Senate. And she took some grief for a comment made during a recent debate, which some have interpreted as her claiming to have, as Paul’s wife, represented the district and then the state in Washington, DC.

But today’s Democratic Party, which is rallying behind Clinton, has largely accepted the legitimacy of the “political spouse” experience. Political partners such as Elizabeth Edwards are becoming the norm; spouses disengaged from their husband’s work, such as Dr. Judy Dean (wife of Howard), are a rare curiosity.

Given the party’s attitudes toward Clinton and George W. Bush, it’s fair to guess that “wife of” is given more credence than “son of” in contemporary Democratic politics. The power of American political royalty has not diminished, but it may have found a different path of succession.

Bingo!
If any Democrat is going to beat Tsongas, it is likely to be former Lowell mayor Donoghue, who neutralizes the gender issue and would seem to perfectly counter Tsongas’s perceived weaknesses: her lack of experience in elected office, and her cozy relationship with “insider” Washington politicos.

Donoghue hit on both themes in an interview with the Phoenix this past Thursday, in which she insisted that chalking up actual accomplishments in an elected political office is different than talking about “what you read in a briefing paper.” Tsongas is supported by “the establishment and insiders,” says Donoghue, who have “decided there really isn’t a need for an election here.”

“The notion that people outside the district should choose the next congressperson,” says Donoghue, “is not only presumptuous but even offensive to people in the district.”

But Tsongas is not so easy to dismiss, and neither are the endorsements of dozens of high-profile pols. She has been active in the Lowell community, and can, at times, speak insightfully about the public–private collaborations that are transforming the city.

She and her supporters are well-practiced at reciting her involvement with the Tsongas Arena Commission, the Lowell Plan, the Fallon Community Health Plan, a foundation for children of 9/11 victims, and her current job as dean of external affairs at Middlesex Community College.

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