In a few short months, state Senator Barbara L’Italien has shepherded some $16 million into various bills for the city of Lowell, funneling state cash toward parks and more than $1 million for the site of a new high school. On Wednesday alone, she managed to secure millions for a parking study, to build a bridge, and other projects in an economic development bill — all pork, all for the Mill City.
There’s just one thing: L’Italien, an Andover Democrat, doesn’t represent Lowell. But she wants to in Congress.
As she vies in a crowded primary for the US House, L’Italien has repeatedly filed, and helped pass, earmarks for the Third District’s largest city, which sits just beyond the boundaries of her own Senate district.
The efforts, she said, are on behalf of Lowell’s former senator, Eileen M. Donoghue, who resigned in April to become Lowell’s city manager, and her former Senate office. Donoghue’s decision to step down from her seat left the city and nearby towns without representation in the upper chamber until next year, and it was L’Italien, Donoghue said, who offered to advocate for Lowell’s targeted projects in the Senate.
The practice of legislators filing amendments for another district can be commonplace when there’s a vacancy. For L’Italien, it also comes at a politically expedient time before the Sept. 4 primary. The two-term senator is seeking to distinguish herself in a 10-person congressional field, and she readily acknowledges she will remind voters in Lowell of her recent work for them on Beacon Hill.
“Absolutely. Why not?” L’Italien said in a recent interview. “Why not make the pitch? Why not tell people about the hard work that I have done on behalf of the city?
“If I didn’t do it,” she said of getting the funds, “who would do it?”
And indeed, she has her name credited to a lot of cash for Lowell. In the final version of the state budget lawmakers sent to Governor Charlie Baker, L’Italien secured $500,000 for a city park and upgrades to Lowell’s downtown. (Baker vetoed both among hundreds of earmarks, but lawmakers have already begun overriding his cuts.)
She scored the same half-million in total for various projects in Lawrence, Andover, Dracut, and Tewksbury — the four communities L’Italien officially represents.
Earlier this month, L’Italien helped tuck another $4.5 million in Lowell-specific earmarks into a $2 billion environmental bond bill, including $1.25 million for environmental testing and potential cleanup costs for the site of a new high school and $2.2 million for a new park along the Merrimack River.
For L’Italien’s own district, there was $2 million earmarked for Lawrence, another $1.75 million for Dracut, $1 million for projects in Tewksbury, and $1 million for Andover. Another $250,000 went toward helping clean the Merrimack River.
A similar breakdown followed Wednesday when the Senate passed a sweeping economic development bill: There was $12 million in L’Italien amendments for Donoghue’s former district, including $11 million for Lowell; her own communities also drew $12 million.
Between the three bills’ earmarks, L’Italien secured $18.5 million for her own district and $16 million expressly for Lowell.
“The alternative would have been that they go without,” L’Italien said of pushing Lowell’s projects. “I am in the adjacent district and two of the four communities I represent consider themselves to be Lowell-centric. It made perfect sense for me to be the person to step up and file these things on their behalf.”
But her advocacy irked some in her own district, who saw it as a ploy to score political points.
“It’s disheartening” that L’Italien is spending time working on behalf of Lowell, said Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who is backing state Representative Juana B. Matias in the Third District race but works directly with L’Italien’s office on funding priorities for his city.
“I know that people in Lowell are going to see this as a plot to get votes,” he said.
David M. Nangle, a Lowell representative and one of three serving the city, said L’Italien alerted him to the environmental bond bill’s earmarks after she filed them. And he said on Wednesday he hadn’t spoken to her about any of the city’s $11 million stuffed into the economic development bill.
“If I were to do something like that, I would go through the present, local delegation,” said Nangle. “It’s a common courtesy.”
L’Italien pushed back at the criticism, noting her own towns got similar funding to Lowell. She also accused Nangle of bringing “politics into this.” (Nangle is backing another of L’Italien’s congressional opponents, Lori Trahan.)
Donoghue — who, too, considered running to replace retiring US Representative Niki Tsongas and has not endorsed a candidate in the race — said she was happy to work with L’Italien.
But the long-time legislator demurred when asked how the residents she serves, and who are eligible to vote in the Sept. 4 primary, would interpret her former colleague’s actions.
“I can tell you as the city manager of the city of Lowell, I was very grateful there was support for the community I represent,” Donoghue said, “separate and apart from any other issue.”