By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"It was a shared undertaking," Tsongas says. "I wasn't here casting votes, but it was a shared commitment to service and family, which you work through on a daily basis. We knew the district quite well and thought it was important to promote it."
Their journey might have continued uninterrupted had it not been for Paul's cancer diagnosis in 1983. Faced with another campaign looming and an uncertain future, the two decided to step away from politics, to return home, to get better.
Paul underwent treatment, joined a law firm in Boston. Niki finished the law degree she'd put off while taking care of the family and the political campaigns. Tsongas realized that she faced the prospect of becoming the sole caretaker, the breadwinner, the woman who'd have to put three kids through college -- alone.
Her oldest daughter, Ashley, remembers her mother studying for the bar in a closet in the family home to escape the household's noise. In time, Tsongas would open a law practice, taking time to care for her recovering husband, attending the kids' sporting events and helping out with Lowell community projects.
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It is true that her recent victory wouldn't have drawn national press had Paul Tsongas not decided to enter the 1992 Democratic presidential race. He was a long shot -- a Massachusetts politician of Greek origin, just like another politician whose race left the party badly burned the last time around (see Dukakis, Michael, the tank ad).
Indeed, when Paul sat a family friend down and said that one of two things was happening -- either he was running for president or Niki was expecting another child -- the friend leaped up and hugged her.
But we know the rest of the story. Despite early success, he was no match for what was to become the Bill Clinton juggernaut. He dropped out after brutal defeats in the Illinois and Michigan primaries. Tsongas returned home, to life in Lowell. And his cancer returned as well, ending his life in 1997.
"The thing that really strikes me about my mom was she was strong and the rock but also very real," says Ashley, now 33 and a policy director for Oxfam America. "When she was sad, she was sad. There wasn't ever any pretending. It was a matter of you acknowledging what's hard and keep going. Some people fall apart. But if she was going to cry, she'd cry and then stop and everything got done."
In her husband's passing, Tsongas became a woman driven to boards and charities, driven by a sense of doing good for the sake of good. Joining the administration of the local community college, she brought in speakers such as George H.W. and Barbara Bush, Rudy Giuliani and Walter Cronkite. She headed Lowell's Merrimack Repertory Theatre board and the United Way of Merrimack Valley. In 2001, trustees of the city's American Textile Museum held a black-tie "Hats Off to Niki Tsongas" gala that raised more than $110,000.
Having toyed with the possibility of an earlier run, she seemed an obvious choice to replace 5th District Rep. Marty Meehan, a Democrat, when he decided to give up his seat.
"I think she has been looking for and finding ways of giving back to the community," Ashley says. "As she worked more, she set her sights broader and broader. This was the next logical step."
Logical, yes. Easy, no. Though she had worked in Lowell, she had moved to Charlestown, Mass., some years back, to be closer to her daughters. Running for office required her to return home. She called upon Dennis Kanin, who had run her husband's presidential campaign, to now run her race. Last May, she kicked off her campaign with a bus tour across the district.
Though the Tsongas name carried weight, she still struggled to shake off her competitors in a crowded Democratic primary. She won with 36 percent, narrowly defeating her nearest competitor by five percentage points.
For the general election, Tsongas mounted a door-to-door campaign while Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy put their immense fundraising clout behind her. There were visits by Rep. Harry Waxman (D-Calif.), whom she had known from Paul's days in the House, and a memorable evening when Clinton, once her husband's arch rival, came to speak on her behalf.
There was also the notable presence Jim O'Brien -- president of the Boston chapter of the Ireland Chamber of Commerce in the United States -- with whom Tsongas has a close friendship.
She beat her Republican challenger, Jim Ogonowski, on Oct. 16 with 51 percent of the vote.
But the final weeks of her campaign and her ultimate victory were tempered by another personal loss. In late September, her younger sister, Suzanne Sauvage, passed away while sleeping in her Brooklyn home. (A cause of death has not been released.)
Tsongas had once dealt with loss and moved on, and now she was called to do so again.
"I still haven't taken it in," she says somberly. "But the one thing you learn is that you have responsibilities that supersede personal issues. You learn to deal with very difficult choices."