Mrs. Tsongas Comes to Washington
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Niki Tsongas, widow of U.S. senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, surveyed her new Washington home. The kind of place Feodor Dostoevski might have drawn inspiration from while writing "Notes From the Underground," it was a basement apartment near the Capitol -- small, dark, with a tiny galley kitchen -- the kind of place that shouts: newest member of the House of Representatives paying her dues.
She had wished to follow in her late husband's footsteps, to surge into the kind of politics that energized him. And now, she has returned -- after last month's victory in an off-year special election that made her representative of Massachusetts's 5th Congressional District, a post her husband once held. At 61, her three daughters now grown, she is building her elected political career literally from the basement up.
It has been more than two decades since Tsongas -- with a cancer-stricken husband and the little ones in tow -- left the home they owned here in Cleveland Park to retreat back to Lowell, Mass., her adopted home town.
Dignified in her bearing, she still seems to fit the description family friend Lynne Faust gives of the Tsongas she met in the mid-1970s: an "elegant woman" with a European sensibility.
And yet, down in that dark basement, she will now lead the spartan life of a political newcomer, serving the people she has come to love.
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Tsongas never would have found Lowell had it not been for Washington. The oldest of four girls and daughter to a career Air Force colonel, she was born in Chico, Calif., and reared in Texas and Japan, Germany and Virginia. But it was that concept of home, real home, that she lacked -- until she met Paul and her life's new trajectory was set.
There she was, a student at Smith College in 1967, living during the summer break with classmates in Georgetown, one of whom worked for a Republican congressman, Brad Morse of Massachusetts. Paul Tsongas worked for Morse, too. When the Smithies threw a party, Paul went.
It was the only party that Paul ever attended willingly in his life, Niki would say later. But there's no doubt it was the most important. When the two went out on a date afterward, he spoke of going back home to Lowell to run for city council.
"It all seemed very exciting to me," Tsongas says, sitting in her still-empty congressional office. "I had never been close to local political races. . . . I was drawn to Paul's intensity. There was a tremendous sense of purpose. And he was the handsomest man I'd ever met."
Two years later, her dashing young man, brimming with ambition, fulfilled his promises and ran for city council. He won his seat, and the same year they were married.
Thus began a partnership that would carry the couple beyond the city council, through the congressional race for the fightin' 5th, followed by his successful run in 1978 for the Senate.