Representative Niki Tsongas, the Lowell congresswoman who announced her retirement last year, after a decade in Congress, distinguished herself as a nationally recognized advocate for women in the military while also looking out for her district, a diverse area stretching from Gateway Cities like Fitchburg and Haverhill to prosperous Acton and Concord.
And she did it, for the most part, while Democrats were in the minority in the House — which is usually a one-way ticket to irrelevance.
Now a field of 10 Democrats want to take up her baton. Of them all, two would make the strongest successor to Tsongas: entrepreneur and former congressional aide Lori Trahan, or Lawrence state representative Juana Matias. Although either of them would be a capable congresswoman, the Globe endorses Trahan. Like Tsongas, she has deep roots in the district, a granular understanding of what she hopes to accomplish in Washington, and the right background for the job.
Trahan attended Lowell public schools, then went to Georgetown on a volleyball scholarship, becoming the first in her family to go to college. Returning to Lowell, she ran a nonprofit in the city, but Washington beckoned. Driven by public service and a desire to support her community, Trahan went to work for then-congressman Marty Meehan for about 8½ years, splitting her time between his Washington and Lowell offices, and eventually rising to chief of staff.
Lowell has traditionally been the center of the Third District, politically and geographically. That has sometimes lead to grumbling from other parts of the district, but old mill cities like Lowell also tend to have the greatest needs. And while Trahan is a product of Lowell and now lives in nearby Westford, her resume also includes stints in state government as deputy treasurer, and private-sector experience at Choicestream, an advertising tech firm, and Concire Leadership Institute, a consultancy.
In a race in which the candidates have traded barbs over roots and residency, Trahan provided a good example of why her background matters, and how it would help shape her agenda in Congress. In an interview with the Globe, Trahan recalled how her class at Lowell High School fell from 900, in her freshman year, to 540 by graduation. “College is the right lane for many, but I do see right now that the American dream is too tightly tethered to a college education,” she said, connecting her experience to one of her goals in Congress. “The answer to that is exposing more kids to trades and technical training.”
If elected, Trahan says she would seek an assignment on the bread-and-butter education and workforce committee. (She also says she would seek to follow Tsongas by serving on the Armed Services Committee.) To her credit, Trahan hasn’t overpromised on the campaign trail: Democratic partisans want pledges to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and enact single-payer health care, but Trahan says she wants to work for more achievable goals, like lowering health care costs and “radically transforming” ICE. “I call myself a pragmatic progressive,” she said. “I’m mindful of what’s possible.”
Electing Matias would shift the district’s political center of gravity to its other main gateway city, Lawrence, and give voice to the district’s burgeoning immigrant population. A Dominican immigrant, Matias grew up in Haverhill and attended public schools there, then settled in Lawrence. A lawyer, she began her electoral career by defeating an entrenched incumbent in a Democratic primary. While she has less experience than Trahan, she has strong support from Lawrence officials; the city’s mayor, Dan Rivera, calls her a “rising star.” Matias says she would seek a seat on the Judiciary Committee, likely to be one of the most important committees if Democrats retake the House. Should she wind up in the House, leadership would be wise to give it to her.
The fact that so many other candidates — including strong contenders — are also in the field is a testament to Tsongas, who broke with Massachusetts tradition by giving ample notice of her retirement. That heads-up gave outsider candidates enough time to raise money and mount serious campaigns. And it’s resulted in fresh faces making a splash in state politics. While the Globe isn’t endorsing their candidacies in this primary, hopefully the state hasn’t heard the last of them.
One example is Dan Koh, the former chief of staff to Boston mayor Marty Walsh, who returned to his hometown of Andover to run for the seat. Koh is hard-working and well prepared, and his prodigious fund-raising has made him one of the front-runners. He makes the point that his extensive municipal government experience would be an asset for a representative whose district includes so many cities. Win or lose, he has a bright future in politics.
Another standout newcomer is Alexandra Chandler of Haverhill, a former Navy intelligence analyst who started the race with no name recognition and has built an impressive campaign. A Russian-speaking expert on weapons of mass destruction, she would be a valuable presence in Congress at this moment in history, and says she’d be interested in serving on the intelligence committee. On non-defense issues, she shows a pragmatic streak, and while her background isn’t in economic development, and she lacks the district connections of the top candidates, she has proved herself a quick study.
The winner of the Democratic Primary will face Rick Green, a successful businessman running unopposed in the GOP primary. Green is a serious candidate, and while 2018 is shaping up to be a tough environment for Republicans, the Third District is not a seat Democrats can take for granted. Unlike most Massachusetts Democrats, who so often run unopposed in November, Tsongas faced — and defeated — GOP candidates in five of her six general election campaigns.
The Democrats should put up their best — and in a strong Third District field, that’s Lori Trahan.