LOWELL Democrat Niki Tsongas held off an aggressive challenge from Republican Jim Ogonowski yesterday to win a special election for the US House, becoming the states first woman in Congress in 25 years and claiming the same seat once held by her late husband, Paul Tsongas.
Her victory sets up a new chapter in the Tsongas legacy. Niki Tsongas had never sought political office, though she ran alongside her husband, one of Lowells 8favorite sons, in his successful bids for City Council and the US House and Senate, as well as his spirited campaign for president.
She won the open Fifth Congressional District seat yesterday with 51 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for Ogonowski, winning most strongly in the cities of Lowell and Lawrence and the southern towns of the district, such as Concord and Acton.
In a contest closely watched by national Democrats and Republicans, Tsongas, 61, campaigned for change, calling the local election a referendum on President Bush and the Iraq war.
Tsongas also hammered Ogonowski on the issue of childrens healthcare during the campaign. She said last night that she hoped the secretary of the Commonwealth will certify the election and coordinate with the clerk of the US House in time for her to vote tomorrow to override the presidents veto of the bill to expand the State Childrens Health Insurance Program.
Less than 48 hours from now, I will have the honor of going to Washington and casting my vote to override the presidents veto of legislation that would expand healthcare coverage to 10 million kids, she said. There is no better way that I can think to start my service in Washington as the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 25 years.
Tsongas once again turned her attention to Iraq. Lets get to work on bringing an end to this war, she said. The time is now to set a timetable for withdrawal of our brave servicemen and women from Iraq.
Tsongas becomes the first woman in the states congressional delegation since Republican 8Margaret Heckler lost her bid for reelection in 1982 after House districts were redrawn.
Ogonowskis 6-point defeat was the closest margin for a 8Republican in years in a district that has elected Democrats to the House since Paul Tsongas first won in 1974. No Republican ever came within single digits of former representative Martin T. Meehan, who resigned this summer during his eighth term to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
It was a hard-fought race; I think we showed them a few things, Ogonowski, 50, said at about 10:15 p.m. last night, drawing groans from a crowd of supporters at Lenzis, a Dracut function hall.
The Dracut hay farmer and retired Air Force and Air National Guard officer portrayed himself as a populist during the race and tried to use Tsongass advantages in name recognition and funding against her, calling Tsongas a Washington insider and criticizing her for holding fund-raisers with former president Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ogonowski made illegal immigration his top issue on the trail, staging a No Amnesty tour and running ads critical of Tsongass offer of in-state tuition and drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. He also tapped into memories of his brother, John, an American Airlines pilot, a Vietnam veteran, and a popular local farmer who was killed when his plane was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Surrounded by family on stage, Ogonowski choked back tears last night when he mentioned his brother, who he said was there in spirit.
Yesterdays turnout of nearly 106,000 voters represented about 28 percent of those registered. That was 37,000 more voters than the two primaries drew six weeks ago.
In addition to Tsongas and Ogonowski, independent candidate Patrick Murphy, a Lowell bricklayer, received 2 percent, independent Kurt Hayes, a Boxborough businessman, received 1 percent, and the Constitution Partys Kevin Thompson, a Brockton religious-school principal, got less than 1 percent.
Interviews with voters yesterday indicated that Ogonowski troubled many with his support for keeping troops in Iraq.
Ending the war is a really big issue, said Nancy Mercer, 66, a self-described liberal from Dracut who considered voting for Ogonowski as a likeable local but couldnt stomach his position on Iraq.
Most of us are sick of it and want it over with, she said. Too many lives, too much money. A terrible, terrible waste.
Although Ogonowski called the Iraq invasion a mistake and criticized Bush for the handling of the war, he wanted to keep troops there until a victory that he defined as a safe and secure Iraq.
Tsongas ran one television ad that pictured Bush under the Mission Accomplished banner and 8another that said, One vote can help end this war: yours.
While the war issue helped Tsongas, the legacy of her revered husband cut both ways, according to interviews yesterday.
Some were eager to support her as a tribute to her husband.
I knew Paul very well said Tim Balas, 54, a finish carpenter from Lowell. He was a good man. He was one of the best politicians in Massachusetts. Thats why I voted for his wife.
But others particularly in Lowell accused Niki Tsongas of opportunism. She won a five-way Democratic primary Sept. 4 but lost her home city by a 2-to-1 ratio to 8Lowell city councilor Eileen 8Donoghue.
In the general election, Ogonowskis campaign criticized Tsongas for moving back into the district from Charlestown, where she bought a townhouse four years ago, after learning the seat might open earlier this year.
I knew Paul Tsongas; Niki Tsongas is no Paul Tsongas, said Harry Harris, 60, a retired educator who steadily voted for Paul Tsongas for City Council up through the 1992 presidential primary but voted for Ogonowski yesterday.
After her victory speech, Tsongas stepped down and reflected on what her husband, who died of complications from cancer in 1997, would have thought.
He would be very pleased for a variety of reasons, she said. As the father of three daughters, hed be happy to see some diversity in the delegation.
Christine McConville of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Stephanie Peters contributed to this report.