US Representative Niki Tsongas said Wednesday that she would not seek another term after representing her Lowell-based district for a decade, an unexpected move that immediately set off a scramble among candidates interested in the open congressional seat.
Tsongas, 71, who had shown all signs of running in 2018, said it was a time for her to retire from public life and enjoy her children and grandchildren.
Her decision drew expressions of interest from Democrats and Republicans to represent the district, which runs along the New Hampshire border from Haverhill to Winchendon, and south to Marlborough and Hudson. It is the first race for a Massachusetts congressional seat without the incumbent since 2013.
Ellen Murphy Meehan — the former wife of University of Massachusetts president Martin Meehan, who represented the district for 15 years — said Wednesday she is “seriously considering” a run. Insiders also see Daniel Koh, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s chief of staff and a onetime Andover resident, as a likely Democratic candidate (a City Hall spokeswoman declined to comment).
Two state senators — Barbara L’Italien of Andover and James Eldridge of Acton — expressed interest in seeking the seat. Another Democrat, state Senator Eileen M. Donoghue of Lowell, said she’s been asked to look at it, calling Tsongas’ retirement “a shock.”
A number of Republican candidates were also mentioned by political observers on Wednesday.
For Tsongas, it was clearly a very personal decision that she made only in the last few days and was shared with very few. Just last week, she was holding a reelection campaign strategy meeting with her top advisers, they said.
“I have learned in life that there is a time for endings and for new beginnings,” she said in a statement. “After much thought, I have decided that this is one of those times. The time feels right most especially because of my desire to spend more time enjoying and celebrating my wonderful and growing family.”
The Lowell Democrat was elected to the seat in 2007, after Marty Meehan left and took the top post at UMass Lowell. Tsongas sits on the House Armed Services Committee, where she has made a reputation working on sexual abuse and veterans issues — accomplishments, she said in a phone interview, of which she is “particularly very proud.”
Meehan said Tsongas’ work on the committee had produced profound changes in the culture that women face in the armed services.
“It was not just assault but the whole culture that she changed,’’ he said. She is also the top Democrat on the House Armed Services’ largest subcommittee — the tactical air and land forces subcommittee — which influences a significant portion of the defense budget.
Tsongas’ decision in 2007 to enter elective politics had roots in her marriage to one of the state’s leading political figures. Her late husband, Paul Tsongas, a former Lowell city councilor and Middlesex County commissioner, held the seat for two terms after his election in 1974 and is credited with leading the efforts to revitalize his native city. He later went on to serve one term in the US Senate and ran a strong, but unsuccessful, campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.
His election ended the GOP’s decades-long grip on the district and marked the beginning of the election of a series of liberal Democrats, including Niki Tsongas herself.
However, what was for decades the Fifth District — and is now labeled the Third District since redistricting following the 2010 Census — has changed around its edges, creating less of a liberal tilt.
In the future, said Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant who has advised candidates in the district, “that district is very unlikely to elect someone as liberal as” Tsongas.
Potential Republican candidates could include Rick Green, a wealthy Pepperell businessman who has been active in GOP politics, state Representative Sheila Harrington of Groton, businessman Salvatore Lupoli, and Gardner Mayor Mark P. Hawke.
Statewide Republican candidates, while losing their races in Massachusetts, have carried the district in some cases, according to Dennis Kanin, the Tsongases’ closest political confidant and strategist for the past 45 years. He noted that US Senator Scott Brown beat Warren in 2012, Charlie Baker won it over Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, and Gabriel Gomez edged Edward Markey in the 2013 special US Senate election.
Among Democrats, in addition to Koh, L’Italien, Eldridge, Donoghue, and Ellen Murphy Meehan, other potential candidates include state Representative Jennifer E. Benson of Lunenburg and the 2014 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Stephen J. Kerrigan.
Michael W. Gallagher, a prominent Lowell lawyer, onetime school committee member, and cochairman of Tsongas’ campaign finance committee, said running to succeed the congresswoman “is certainly of interest to me.” Former state senator Barry R. Finegold of Andover, a Democrat, said in a statement he is thinking about a run.
Tsongas’ surprise move is much like what her husband did in 1984 when he shocked the state by announcing he would not run for a second six-year Senate term.
He had been diagnosed with cancer and died in 1997 from complications from cancer treatments.
She kept her decision not to seek reelection equally secret, apparently not even giving her congressional colleagues a heads up.
“I was really surprised,’’ said US Representative Richard E. Neal, the dean of the Massachusetts House delegation. “I don’t think she told any of us.”
Meehan said Paul Tsongas would have been “extremely proud” of his wife’s tenure in the job he had held for four years — work that included helping the urban communities in the district on economic development issues and looking after the interests of the Massachusetts companies that dominate the defense industry.
In her statement, Tsongas described her time in office as a “heartfelt honor . . . guided all along by an extraordinary role model in my late husband Paul.’’
She also said she felt “proud” that her 2007 election marked the first time Massachusetts had sent a woman to Congress in 25 years.
“Since that door cracked open, the Commonwealth has elected another female member of Congress, our first female US Senator, and in my district, 50% of our state legislators are now women, paving the way for even more women from our state to serve in political office bringing their voices to all we value as a country,” Tsongas said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a tweet, praised Tsongas as a “mentor and friend.”
“She has shown me how tough women fight for families in Massachusetts and across this country,” Warren wrote.
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com. Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.