Tsongas coming into her own

Neither caretaker nor token

THERE’S A LONG TRADITION in Washington of political wives following their husbands into office. Sometimes those spouses have an impact apart from anything their husband accomplished—think Hillary Clinton—but more often they’re reliable placeholders. They win votes because of the tradition they carry on and, in office, they follow the political path worn by their husbands.

Niki Tsongas, who in 2007 followed her late husband Paul Tsongas to Congress, is shaping up to be in the former group. Before she won her husband’s old House seat north of Boston in a special election, she was best known for what her spouse had accomplished during two House terms, a term in the Senate, and a 1992 presidential campaign in which he won the New Hampshire primary before losing to Bill Clinton. Niki Tsongas won the backing of party elders because of her famous name and because she would become the only woman in the Massachusetts House delegation.

 Niki Tsongas has carved out roles as a staunch defender of Massachusetts military bases and
as an advocate for female soldiers. Photo courtesy of Niki Tsongas.

In office, however, Tsongas has demonstrated that she’s neither a caretaker nor a token. She replaced Martin Meehan, who left Congress to become chancellor of the University of Massa­chu­setts Lowell, and took his seat on the Armed Services Committee. She has carved out roles as a staunch defender of Massachusetts military bases —Hanscom Air Force Base is in her district—and as an advocate for female soldiers. Like her husband, she’s done her best to support businesses in her district, but, unlike him, she’s allied herself closely with Democratic Party leaders in the House and compiled an overwhelmingly partisan voting record. Instead of challenging her party as he often did, she’s sought out issues that bring the parties together.

“What Paul did do is take a clear-eyed look at everything, but I do think the times have changed,” she says. When Paul Tsongas served, “Democrats had a very strong majority here in the House. There were lots of different points of view within that Democratic majority. You had a diverse delegation from Massachusetts, but yet a collegial one, and people could work across the aisle. Now it’s obviously quite different.”

Indeed, at a time when Congress is more partisan than at any other time in modern history—much more so than when Paul Tsongas served in the 1970s and 1980s—Niki Tsongas has followed the trend. On the major issues of the day, she’s mostly walked in lockstep with her party. She supported President Obama’s health care law and Wall Street reform law in 2010, for instance, and backed 2009 House legislation to create a cap-and-trade system to combat climate change. She has sided with her party on votes that split Democrats and Republicans more than 95 times out of 100, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.

Paul Tsongas, by contrast, was a maverick. He won a seat that Republicans had held for the previous century and his partisan voting patterns varied from year to year. In his final two years in the Senate, 1983 and 1984, he sided with Republicans on 15 percent of the party line votes. He left the Senate after one term following his diagnosis with cancer. In his most partisan year, 1976, his second in the House, he sided with Republicans on 5 percent of the partisan votes.

Liberal on social issues, as is his wife, Paul Tsongas was best known for challenging his party to break from its anti-business bias of the 1960s and to become more fiscally responsible. In 1994, out of concern that the Democrats weren’t doing enough to tackle the deficit, he proposed a third party and suggested a moderate, Colin Powell, to be its standard bearer. Tsongas died of complications from cancer in 1997.

Niki Tsongas has never challenged her party in that way. Her loyalty to the party, in fact, has earned her a spot on House Democrats’ steering and policy committee, which plays a role in making committee assignments. But Dennis Kanin, who was Paul Tsongas’s congressional chief of staff and has more recently advised Niki, says that context is key. “If you look back in the 1970s and early 1980s at the number of members of the Senate who crossed party lines, there were a very high percentage of Republicans who voted more liberally than Democrats,” he says. “There is no crossover today.”

Kanin points to Tsongas’s work in 1979 on the bailout of Chrysler, in which he joined with Republicans and defied liberal Democrats by supporting loan guarantees and a union wage freeze. He cites the more recent auto bailout, of 2009, which Republicans largely opposed, as evidence that the GOP would not have supported the Chrysler deal in today’s Washington.
Niki Tsongas has parted with Democrats on a few important occasions. Last year, she voted to repeal a medical device tax imposed by the 2010 health care law, arguing that it should have exempted small companies like those in her district. In 2011, she voted for the deal that expanded the government’s borrowing authority while also requiring major budget cuts. It averted a default on the US debt but led to the so-called fiscal cliff last year. Tsongas says that defense contractors, including Waltham’s Raytheon, need to prepare for cuts. “We’re in an era of belt tightening,” she says.

Tsongas has never strayed from an anti-war position. In 2010, she voted against a supplemental funding bill for the war in Afghanistan, in defiance of President Obama. But that doesn’t mean she’s not fighting to preserve Massa­chusetts military bases. In September, she invited the top Democrat on Armed Services, Adam Smith of Washing­ton, on a tour of Hanscom. She says “the synergy that exists between the base, the research and development facilities, and all the companies within a 10-mile radius” cannot be replicated elsewhere and should be maintained.

Voters in her Merrimack Valley district, centered around Paul Tsongas’s hometown of Lowell, approve. Jon Golnik, the Republican businessman who challenged her for a second time in 2012, tried to make an issue of Tsongas’s partisan voting record. But Tsongas defeated him with ease, winning two out of every three votes on Election Day, expanding her margin over Golnik from 28,212 votes in 2010 to 89,369 in 2012.

Niki Tsongas, in her own way, is making her mark in gridlocked Washington. Teaming with GOP Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio in 2011, she led the House effort to pass legislation to help victims of sexual assault in the military. The law, which won broad bi­partisan support and which President Obama signed in December 2011, requires that victims have access to an attorney and receive a quick transfer out of their unit. Turner says Tsongas “is a hard worker and a great partner with a heart for issues that affect people directly.”

Bill Delahunt, the former South Shore and Cape Cod congressman who served with Tsongas for three years, says her work on the sexual assault bill was “clearly in the tradition of her husband. She built a coalition and got a good final product.”
Like her husband, Niki Tsongas had an early interest in politics. An Air Force brat who moved around a lot as a child, she recalls listening supportively to President Ken­nedy’s inaugural address while en route with her father to his next assignment in Japan in 1961. She volunteered on Minnesota Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968. But after meeting Paul Tsongas bet­ween her junior and senior years at Smith College, while both were Washington interns, he for his hometown representative, Republican F. Bradford Morse, she for an investment bank, they got married and she took on the more traditional role of supportive homemaker and political spouse.

“To me, this seemed very much a shared undertaking but I never thought of myself as a candidate,” she says of the family’s political life. At the same time, she was never a stereotypical housewife. She continued her legal studies and in 1988 started an all-female law firm in Lowell before deciding, upon Meehan’s retirement, that she would pursue her husband’s old job.
Helping women is a theme of many of the issues on which Tsongas has focused her efforts. She says she decided to challenge the Pentagon on sexual assault after attending an event for wounded veterans at which a military nurse told her that she was “more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy.”

Tsongas has also proved effective in pressing the Pentagon to develop better body armor for all soldiers, and in particular for women. She persuaded her House colleagues last year to include a provision in the annual defense authorization bill directing the Secretary of the Army to assess the need for new body armor designed specifically for female soldiers because body armor today is not fitted to female body types. She also endorsed President Obama’s budget request to triple funding for improved body armor?to $26.9 million in fiscal 2013.

Tsongas says she feels obliged to ask questions that men in Congress might overlook. “I think that what you find when you get here is that so many of these issues are neglected,” she says.

She’s spent the rest of her time in Congress on matters of local interest. Tsongas played a role in 2011 in shaping the reauthorization of a federal grant program for small businesses. An early version would have diverted many of the grants to companies that already have venture capital backing. Tsongas objected, arguing that the federal grants should go to true startups, and the funding provision for the venture capital-backed companies was scaled back. Massa­chusetts companies receive more of the grants than those in any state apart from California.

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Through her seat on the Natural Resources Com­mittee, Tsongas also moved legislation last fall to transfer a National Park Service parking lot to Lowell so the city can develop it as part of the Hamilton Canal District, a newly revitalized commercial area. She says her husband, the son of Greek immigrants who ran a tailoring and dry cleaning business in Lowell, would have been proud of her efforts to help the city reinvent itself after the collapse of the textile industry.

“He talked about the importance of the private sector,” she says, “but he never ignored the important role government can play.”