A talk with U.S. Representative Niki Tsongas
Aside from their gender, it might appear that most women in leadership positions have little in common. After all, they are individuals with varied backgrounds, careers and interests. But there is one thing all female leaders share: They have succeeded at overcoming obstacles, sometimes veiled and sometimes apparent, that their male counterparts have not had to face. In this issue of mvm, we are celebrating the lives and careers of some of the Merrimack Valley’s most notable women, beginning with U.S. Rep. Nicola “Niki” Tsongas, whose 3rd District in Massachusetts includes a large portion of the Valley.
Nicola Dickson Sauvage was born in Chico, Calif., on April 26, 1946, the oldest of four daughters. Her father, Col. Russell Sauvage, was a civil engineer in the U.S. Air Force and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Tsongas says her military upbringing, which included moving frequently — growing up, she lived in California, Texas, Virginia, Germany and Japan — helped shape her views on community service and sacrifice. It’s one of the reasons, she says, that she sought to join the House Armed Services Committee when she was elected.
Tsongas, who graduated from Smith College in Northampton in 1968, worked as an intern in Arlington, Va., during the summer of 1967 for then U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who announced his candidacy for president later that year. It was there that she met Lowell native Paul Tsongas, the late U.S. congressman, U.S. senator and presidential candidate, who was in the Washington, D.C., area working as an intern for Rep. Brad Morse of Massachusetts’ 5th District. Paul Tsongas would eventually represent that district, which was renamed in 2012, and Niki Tsongas has represented it since 2007.
Paul and Niki Tsongas moved to Lowell after they were married in 1969. She spent the early years of their marriage supporting her husband’s political career and raising their three daughters. After graduating from Boston University School of Law in 1988, Tsongas became a partner in Lowell’s first all-female law firm, an accomplishment she calls “small but important,” as there were only two attorneys. Tsongas also served as Dean of External Affairs at Middlesex Community College and as a board member at Fallon Community Health Plan.
When U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan resigned in 2007 to become chancellor of UMass Lowell, Tsongas ran for his seat in a special election against Dracut Republican Jim Ogonowski, becoming the first woman to serve in the Massachusetts congressional delegation in 25 years.
Recently, we had an opportunity to talk with Tsongas in her office at Lowell’s Boott Mills.
What made you want to pursue a political career? Are those reasons still the same today, now that you have been in office for nearly 10 years?
Having been married to someone who served in public office for almost his entire adult life, I knew it was an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people you represent. Massachusetts had not elected a woman to Congress in 25 years. When then-Congressman Meehan was invited to become the chancellor at UMass Lowell, I saw the opportunity to make a difference and felt it was important that a woman seek this office, that women be part of the political process in this country. If we’re not [represented] there are issues that are never addressed. I’ve seen that over and over again as I’ve been in Congress. That’s as true today as it was [in 2007].
What has your experience been working with other women in Congress, especially on the other side of the aisle?
I have always sought to work across the aisle, whether it’s with congresswomen or congressmen. When it comes to working with female members of Congress from the Republican Party, one place that I’ve found a real commonality is around the role of international women. Every year I make a bipartisan trip to Afghanistan to see what the gains have been for women there. Since [the U.S. has] been there, we’ve seen Afghan women benefit from our presence. That is something I think the Republican congresswomen that I travel with feel as strongly about as I do. Congresswoman [Martha] Roby from Alabama and I have written op-eds together, talking about the gains for Afghan women and how important it is that the government in this country help to protect those gains.
I have also worked with [Republican] Congressman Mike Turner [of Ohio] — not a congresswoman — on the issue of sexual assault in the military. He and I, every year, introduce a bill that gets absorbed into our defense bill that chips away at the shortcomings around how the services have dealt with sexual assault. It’s a terrible issue. Altogether too many women — and men — have to deal with it.
Your late husband, Paul Tsongas, was a remarkable person and politician who accomplished a great deal for the Merrimack Valley and Massachusetts as a whole. How do you feel your career has been influenced by his?
People often ask me who was my mentor. Well, I lived with the best role model you could ever have. I think I’ve been very much influenced by the way in which Paul served. I saw in Paul somebody who always tried to stand back and take a full look at a particular issue, who tried to make his decisions based on merits. I’ve tried to do that as well. Paul had strong beliefs, but always tried to find a way to reach across the aisle. I have tried to do that as well. He cared deeply, deeply about the Merrimack Valley and its communities and spent much of his tenure trying to bring federal resources to them. I’ve done that as well. I saw and learned from him that you can make a difference in the lives of your constituents. Paul is with me every single day.
What are some of the ways you’ve worked with Congressman Seth Moulton, who also represents part of the Merrimack Valley, to address issues facing the region?
We always work together. Seth and I both serve on the Armed Services Committee. We come to it with different experiences — he having served in the Marine Corps, while I was a product of a military family. There are a lot of defense companies scattered throughout the Merrimack Valley who seek partnerships with the Defense Department. We always seek to support them. We work very hard to support the military bases we have here. He and I both know that we rise and fall together.