In 2006 Niki Tsongas won a special election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from northeastern Massachusetts. She was the first woman to serve in Congress from Massachusetts in a quarter century. On Capitol Hill, Tsongas used her seat on the Armed Services Committee to combat sexual harassment in the military and to open opportunities for women servicemembers. She also worked to improve environmental regulations and set aside more land for the National Park System. “I hope one of the views I’ve had is that if you change, help to change an institution,” she said, reflecting on her career. Whether it was reforms in the military or helping more women win election to Congress, she continued, “As we push the institution, it helps to push a country.”1
Niki Tsongas was born Nicola (Niki) Dickson Sauvage in Chico, California, on April 26, 1946, to Russell Elmer and Marian Sauvage. Her father served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War and remained in the service for 20 years, which meant the family moved frequently between air bases within the continental United States and abroad. She graduated from Narimasu American High School in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964. She briefly attended Michigan State University before transferring to Smith College where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in religion in 1968. While visiting family in Northern Virginia between semesters during the summer of 1967, she met Paul Efthemios Tsongas who was interning for Representative Frank Bradford Morse of Massachusetts. The couple married two years later and had three daughters: Ashley, Katina, and Molly.2
Employed as a social worker in New York after college, Tsongas traveled to New England every weekend in 1968, either to New Hampshire to campaign for presidential candidate Eugene Joseph McCarthy or to Massachusetts to help her fiancé Paul run for city council. “The experience made me love—and I have always loved—the process of getting elected,” Tsongas said of her early days on the campaign trail. After marrying in 1969, Niki Tsongas moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, where Paul had begun serving as a deputy assistant attorney general and city councilman. Tsongas worked as a paralegal, high school teacher, and adoption caseworker. In 1971 she began studying law at Boston University but left after one year to raise her family while her husband focused on his political career. “Politics is a tough life to be in.... I never felt my children should be orphaned by it. I stayed home with them. It was the right thing to do.”3
In 1974 Tsongas helped her husband win election to the U.S. House from a district that encompassed Lowell. “I was always very much a part of the campaign, primarily in terms of being out meeting voters and talking about what he wanted to do,” Tsongas later reflected, adding, “So when he ran for Congress, I took on a very independent role.”4 In 1978 Paul won a seat in the U.S. Senate. The family moved to Washington, DC, where Niki Tsongas briefly ran a catering business with a friend.5
The Tsongas family moved back to Lowell in 1984 when Paul resigned from the Senate to focus on his health after being diagnosed with lymphoma. Niki Tsongas resumed her studies, earning her law degree from Boston University in 1988 before opening her own law firm. After his cancer went into remission, Paul returned to politics with a longshot candidacy for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Tsongas left her law practice and returned to the campaign trail. “The mysterious twists and turns of our life have some internal sense,” she told the New York Times. “From day one, I felt this was possible.”6 Lagging behind the frontrunners, Paul suspended his presidential campaign in March, and the couple returned to legal work in Lowell. Paul Tsongas died of pneumonia on January 18, 1997.7
Despite speculation that Tsongas was going to start her own political career following Paul’s death, she declined and took a position as a dean at Middlesex Community College in Lowell. “It was different with Paul, because he was so driven to succeed in politics,” she said in 2001. “It was the one thing he really wanted. With me, though, it’s only one of many things I might want to do.”8
In early 2007 Representative Martin Thomas Meehan announced his resignation from Congress, and Tsongas jumped into the race to replace him in the Lowell-area district. Tsongas brought on Meehan’s wife as her campaign chair. While her husband’s legacy factored in the race, Tsongas also seized on the importance of diverse representation in Congress. “Massachusetts hadn’t sent a woman to Congress in 25 years. And as I often say, we can’t win if we don’t run.”9
Despite the endorsement of former Representative Chester Greenough Atkins (Meehan’s predecessor) and strong name recognition, Tsongas faced significant opposition in the primary from Lowell city councilor and former mayor Eileen Donoghue. During the campaign, Tsongas was pressed on her own lack of legislative experience, but she ended up capturing the endorsements of both local newspapers and much of the party establishment, propelling her to a narrow victory in the September primary.10
In the general election she faced Republican Jim Ogonowski, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel whose brother had been a pilot in one of the hijacked planes on September 11, 2001. Tsongas focused on what she saw as the failure of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy and his veto of a bill to expand children’s health care only two weeks before the special election. On Election Day, Tsongas won with 51 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman to serve from Massachusetts since Margaret Heckler left office in 1983.11 She ran unopposed in the 2008 general election and never received less than 55 percent of the vote in later elections. Redistricting following the 2010 census added smaller manufacturing communities to her district and strengthened her position.12
Tsongas took the Oath of Office on October 18, 2007, only two days after her election. She had rushed to Washington to vote in an ultimately unsuccessful override attempt against President Bush’s veto of the children’s health insurance expansion. In her first term, she was assigned to the Committees on Armed Services and the Budget. In the 111th Congress (2009–2011), she joined the Committee on Natural Resources, where she worked to preserve and expand the national park system. She left the Budget Committee in the 112th Congress (2011–2013).13
Tsongas’s first bill called for a speedy redeployment of U.S. military forces engaged in Iraq. Tsongas used her seat on Armed Services to focus on providing American troops abroad with body armor and resources they needed in the field while also caring for veterans returning home.14 She also shined a light on issues that disproportionately affected women in the military. Alongside Representative Michael R. Turner of Ohio, Tsongas pushed for updating the Armed Forces’ sexual assault review system. Tsongas and Turner cofounded the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and together offered provisions into each annual defense appropriations bill tackling the issue. She also submitted several bills aimed at improving physical and mental health procedures for women in the military, including a provision in the 2016 fiscal defense bill requiring the Department of Defense to craft a comprehensive breastfeeding policy for female soldiers. Asked later about her legacy in Congress, Tsongas pointed first to her service on Armed Services. “I can’t say I did it by myself, but … we’ve really taken on the issue of sexual assault and working across the aisle have really pushed for change in the military,” she said.15
Tsongas also submitted numerous bills addressing public land use, including measures which carved out national parks in urban areas. Her second bill in the 110th Congress (2007–2009) attempted to expand the boundary of Massachusetts’s Minute Man National Historical Park to include a nearby farm in Concord central to the events of the Revolutionary War. “It may seem like small change,” she said on the House Floor, “but the preservation of such a significant site is monumentally important to the history of this country.” Her bill became part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.16 Tsongas sponsored a bill expanding the Lowell National Historical Park, which her husband had helped create in 1978. She continued to introduce legislation to support the educational efforts of the park and used her seat on the Natural Resources Committee to push for further appropriations for the National Park Service, focusing on urban parks like Lowell’s.17
Tsongas’s interest in urban redevelopment extended to environmental issues. She steered stimulus funds to treat and redevelop land and sources of groundwater blighted by chemical spills in Lowell. She also fought to create federal grants to treat similar brownfield sites (abandoned plots of land potentially exposed to hazardous substances) elsewhere in America. In four of her six terms, she introduced the Groundwork USA Trust Act, a planned program that would catalogue, clean, and repurpose brownfield sites nationwide. “It’s a step-by-step process,” Tsongas said while visiting the cleanup site of a former paper mill. “These things do not happen overnight. It’s taking that first step.”18
Tsongas also worked across the aisle on certain major policies. She supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 and regularly held town halls for constituents on the law. But she split with the party to advocate for the repeal of the medical device tax which she claimed hurt manufacturers and companies in her district.19 In her final term in office, she attracted broad bipartisan support for her bill, the INTERDICT Act, which provided additional funding for U.S. Customs and Border Protection services to upgrade screening technology to better intercept fentanyl and other opioids coming into the country. The INTERDICT Act passed the House with 412 votes.20
In the summer of 2017, Tsongas announced her retirement after nearly six terms in the House. “This is not an easy job; it was never meant to be easy. But it’s a great job. But you have to be willing to give it everything, and there comes a time where other things call.”21
1“The Honorable Nicola S. (Niki) Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (18 January 2018): 14, quotation on 39. The interview transcript is available online.
2Carol Stocker, “Niki Tsongas Stands by Her Man,” 4 June 1991, Boston Globe: 25; “Long Bio,” official website of Representative Niki Tsongas, http://web.archive.org/web/20181027135420/https://tsongas.house.gov/long-bio/.
3“Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 4–5; “Long Bio”; Brian C. Mooney, “Life After Paul: Four Years After Her Husband’s Death, Niki Tsongas Talks About Her Work in the Arts, Her Ties to Lowell, and a Possible Run for Office,” 22 April 2001, Boston Globe: n.p.
4“Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 5.
5Almanac of American Politics, 2018 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2017): 931.
6Stocker, “Niki Tsongas Stands by Her Man”; Karen de Witt, “The 1992 Campaign: Man in the News: Paul Ethemios Tsongas; A Politician Who Thought He Could,” 20 February 1992, New York Times: A14.
7B. Drummond Ayres Jr., “The 1992 Campaign: Tsongas Declares He Won’t Re-Enter Democratic Race,” 10 April 1992, New York Times: A1; Martin F. Nolan, “Former Senator Dies of Pneumonia at 55; Paul Tsongas—1941–1997,” 20 January 1997, Boston Globe: B4.
8Mooney, “Life After Paul.”
9Christopher Scott, “Meehan’s Wife to Help Lead Tsongas Campaign,” 12 April 2007, Lowell Sun (MA): n.p.; “Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 8.
10Scot Lehigh, “A Woman in the House?,” 8 May 2007, Boston Globe: A13; Matt Viser, “Tsongas Campaign Focuses on Name; Critics Question Her Experience,” 26 August 2007, Boston Globe: B1; Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “Massachusetts Election Statistics,” accessed 14 February 2020, https://electionstats.state.ma.us/elections/search/year_from:2007/year_to:2018/office_id:5.
11Almanac of American Politics, 2018: 929; Matt Viser, “Battle Lines are Drawn—Fifth Congressional District Race Offers Voters a Sharp Choice,” 6 September 2007, Boston Globe: B1; Eric Moskowitz, “Tsongas is Picking Up the Pace Amid Already-Intense Campaign,” 9 October 2007, Boston Globe: B1; Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “Massachusetts Election Statistics.”
12Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present;” “Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 16.
13Eric Moskowitz, “Tsongas Whirls into Day One in D.C.,” 19 October 2007, Boston Globe: B1; Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (18 October 2007): H11734; Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (1 November 2007): H12397; Congressional Directory, various editions (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007–2019).
14Iraq Redeployment Timetable and Political Reconciliation Act of 2008, H.R. 5499, 110th Cong. (2008); To direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program to provide outreach and training to certain college and university mental health centers relating to the mental health of veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and for other purposes, H.R. 6765, 110th Cong. (2008); Almanac of American Politics, 2018: 929–930.
15“Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 21–22; Almanac of American Politics, 2018: 929–930; WE CARE Act, H.R. 5224, 111th Cong. (2010); Defense Sexual Trauma Response Oversight and Good Governance Act, H.R. 1529, 112th Cong. (2011); Consolidated Appropriations Act 2016, PL 114-113, 129 Stat. 2242 (2015).
16Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (22 September 2008): H8496; Minute Man National History Park Boundary Revision Act, H.R. 5853, 110th Cong. (2008); Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, PL 111-11, 123 Stat. 991 (2009); Jennifer Fenn Lefferts, “Historic Day for Farm Site; On Path to Join Minute Man Park,” 2 April 2009, Boston Globe: 1; “Barrett House Transferred to Minute Man National Park,” 8 November 2012, Concord Journal (MA): A7.
17Lowell National Park Land Exchange, PL 112-182, 126 Stat. 1420 (2012); Lowell National Historical Park Creative Partnerships Act, H.R. 5371, 114th Cong. (2016); Almanac of American Politics, 2018: 930.
18Lyle Moran, “New System to Speed Up Cleanup at Silresim Site in Lowell,” 16 August 2011, Lowell Sun (MA): n.p.; Groundwork USA Trust Act of 2010, H.R. 5134, 111th Cong. (2010); Groundwork USA Trust Act of 2011, H.R. 1931, 112th Cong. (2011); Groundwork USA Trust Act of 2013, H.R. 2205, 113th Cong. (2013); Groundwork USA Trust Act of 2015, H.R. 3707, 114th Cong. (2015); Keith Eddings, “Merrimac Paper Mill: New Life for Ravaged Landmark,” 9 October 2014, Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, MA): n.p.
19Almanac of American Politics, 2018: 929.
20INTERDICT Act, PL 115-112, 131 Stat. 2274 (2018).
21“Tsongas Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 36; “Tsongas Will Move on; Not Seeking Re-Election,” 11 August 2017, Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA): 1.
The Honorable Nicola S. (Niki) Tsongas recalls the ways in which she helped her husband Paul Tsongas when he ran for Congress.
The Honorable Nicola S. (Niki) Tsongas recalls an experience on the Armed Services Committee and explains how women Members can bring about change.