THE RACE to succeed Martin T. Meehan as Fifth District congressman began as a contest between the candidates' family histories. Democrat Niki Tsongas is the widow of Paul Tsongas, who held the seat before serving in the Senate. Republican Jim Ogonowski is the brother of a pilot killed on Sept. 11. As the campaign has developed, however, clear differences on issues have emerged. On the basis of these, Niki Tsongas is the better candidate to build on Meehan's progressive leadership. The Globe endorses her in the special election Oct. 16.
The two differ most strikingly on the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush. Tsongas is a strong advocate of the expansion, aimed at ensuring coverage for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but are unable to afford the high cost of private insurance. She points out that the future success of the Massachusetts effort to ensure universal coverage will depend in part on the S-Chip expansion.
Ogonowski has said he wants to expand the program, but opposes the bill on the grounds that, by eliminating a federal requirement for identification, it could provide insurance to the children of undocumented immigrants. Tsongas says the bill's wording clearly indicates it would not do this. Ogonowski has not decided how he would vote on the House's attempt to override the veto. With the override vote slated for Oct. 18, this is likely to be the first major decision the winner of the race will confront in Washington. Residents of the district should have no doubt about how their representative will vote on the override, for which S-Chip supporters are struggling to get the two-thirds majority they will need.
Tsongas's proposal for reducing US involvement in Iraq, though perhaps overly optimistic, is also more clearly defined than Ogonowski's. She favors a nine-month timetable for bringing most of the troops home, with just a small contingent left for protection of US diplomats. She says US troops stationed in nearby countries could be called on to respond to Al Qaeda threats in Iraq. Ogonowski favors keeping US troops in Iraq until the country is stable, but at that point would favor bringing home all of them.
On immigration, Tsongas would have voted for the bipartisan bill that Congress rejected. She favors stronger border controls and greater accountability from employers who hire illegals, but also an "earned path to citizenship" for qualifying immigrants. Ogonowski opposes the bill. He wants to see a crackdown on businesses that employ undocumented workers and the deportation of the latter when they are caught.
The Fifth District has a long history of solid representatives, Republicans and Democrats. On the issues, Tsongas is in this same thoughtful tradition.