Lowell City Manager and Former Massachusetts State Senator.
For many successful women, the road that led them to their accomplishments was winding and sometimes unintentionally traveled. This was the case for former Massachusetts state senator and new Lowell City Manager Eileen Donoghue, who says she never intended to get into politics.
After growing up in a family of eight children in Holyoke, Mass., Donoghue, now 64, graduated from UMass Amherst in 1976 and Suffolk University Law School in 1979. In 1984, she was a founding partner in the Boston law firm of Donoghue and Grossman, where she worked until she opened an office in Lowell in 1991.
It wasn’t until she moved to Lowell with her husband, John O’Connor, in 1988 and met former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas — one of her neighbors — that Donoghue considered running for political office.
“We were unpacking dishes in the kitchen when Paul Tsongas came and knocked on the door. He invited us to a neighborhood block party,” Donoghue says. “By the time we left that party, I was asked to participate on the board of the Whistler House, and my husband was asked to join the board of the [Merrimack Repertory Theatre].”
Within a few years, Donoghue and O’Connor were involved in running a variety of Lowell nonprofits. They also fell in love with the city.
“One day, I was in sitting in my office and got a call from Paul Tsongas,” Donoghue says. “He asked me if I had ever thought about running for the city council. I remember saying to him, ‘Paul, I am not political. I’m a lawyer.’ And he said, ‘It’s because you’re not political that you should run.’ ”
Donoghue told Tsongas that she would think about it, and eventually she agreed. “I had no idea how to run a campaign, so my husband and I made a flyer and went door to door in Christian Hill,” she says. “I realized that you really can do a lot of good. You can effect change if you don’t like what you see.”
Donoghue served on the Lowell City Council from 1996 to 2008. She was Lowell’s mayor from 1998 to 2002.
When U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan resigned from Congress to become chancellor of UMass Lowell in 2007, Donoghue decided to run for his seat. She finished second in the Democratic primary to Niki Tsongas, who eventually won the election.
“It was a great learning experience,” Donoghue says.
In 2010, when state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos announced that he would not seek re-election, Donoghue decided to run for his seat. She was sworn in as state senator for the First Middlesex District, which includes Lowell, Dunstable, Groton, Pepperell, Tyngsborough and Westford, in January 2011.
Issues regarding economic development and education were important to Donoghue during her time in state government. She helped pass a $1 billion bill to fund investments in infrastructure, job creation and housing in gateway cities. She also helped achieve the passage of a college savings tax deduction, and her work on the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development helped to create economic opportunities throughout the district.
Donoghue also served as the Senate chair of the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, which supports issues affecting women and families, such as pay equity and family medical leave.
“Women are clearly a minority in the [Massachusetts] House and Senate,” Donoghue says, “but we have a great ability to collaborate and get things done. It’s interesting because every woman lawmaker I’ve spoken to was a reluctant candidate. Women tend to come to politics with the idea that they might not be qualified, no matter what their experience actually is. Women need to understand how important their voices are, whether it’s at the local, state or federal level. Without women’s voices at the table, we do not get a representative government.”
In April, Donoghue gave up her seat in the Massachusetts Senate to become Lowell’s city manager.
“The opportunity came out of the blue, to be honest,” Donoghue says. “When Kevin Murphy decided to retire, several people called me and said, ‘Maybe you should think about doing this.’ I thought about it a long time.”
Economic development and improving the quality of education remain priorities for Donoghue, the first woman to serve in the position.
“I’ve had the opportunity to look at Lowell at the state level, as well as see what other communities are doing, and there are tremendous opportunities here,” Donoghue says. “Companies are coming to Boston because of its proximity to MIT and Harvard. We have a tremendous resource here in UMass Lowell, and the amenities millennials are looking for. We have great housing stock and strong neighborhoods. We can do a lot to bring Lowell to the next level.”
Thanks to Kevin Harkins for capturing this behind the scenes video of Eileen Donoghue!