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The women who are eyeing Kerry's seat

CAN THIS picture be changed? All white. All male. All in the same political family. And all determined to keep it that way. That describes the Massachusetts congressional delegation, nearly half of which is jockeying to become the next junior senator if John Kerry becomes the next president. Democrats William Delahunt of Quincy, Barney Frank of Newton, Stephen Lynch of South Boston, Edward J. Markey of Malden, and Martin Meehan of Lowell are all in one stage or another of fantasizing about inheriting Kerry's seat. Two women are seriously thinking about challenging the status quo on the Democratic side: Martha Coakley, the Middlesex County district attorney, and Nikki Tsongas, wife of the late Senator Paul Tsongas. Shannon P. O'Brien, the Democrats' 2002 gubernatorial candidate, is also mentioned as a possible candidate.

Tsongas says the message of her campaign would be "It's about time." But if Massachusetts's political history is the guide, any one of these women will have a tough time beating the entrenched pack of incumbent congressmen. Despite its liberal image nationally, Massachusetts is not friendly to female candidates seeking higher elective office.

Massachusetts voters have never elected a woman to the United States Senate. Only three women have represented Massachusetts in Congress. Two were Republicans. Edith Nourse Rogers was elected after her husband's death in 1925 to fill his unexpired term and went on to represent the Fifth District for 35 years; Margaret Heckler served from 1966 until 1982 and ultimately lost her seat to Frank. On the Democratic side, Louise Day Hicks served one term before losing to Joseph Moakley, who ran as an independent to defeat her.

Until 1998, no woman was elected to statewide office in her own right. That year, O'Brien won election to state treasurer. While she successfully parlayed her political base and gender to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary, she was soundly defeated by Republican Mitt Romney in the general election.

It's one thing to say it's time for Massachusetts to elect more women to higher office. But a candidate needs more than gender to make a convincing case for election to the US Senate. Tsongas and Coakley represent two very different types of candidates.

Coakley is a career prosecutor. Elected district attorney in 1998, she was an assistant district attorney from 1989 and regularly made news as the chief of the Child Abuse Prosecution Unit. She has a political base, personal name recognition, and support from Democratic women, especially lawyers, who believe she earned the right in her own stead to seek higher office.

But going from the Middlesex District Attorney's office to the US Senate is "a huge step," as Coakley acknowledges, and opting to try "is a huge personal and professional decision." Coakley says she is weighing how much she wants to work in Washington, how competitive she would be, and whether "it's a place where I think I can make an impact."

As for Tsongas, her last name is well known in Democratic political circles, but it is unclear how much it means to the average voter in 2004. Paul Tsongas was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and left his Senate seat in 1984 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He ran for president in 1992, won the New Hampshire primary, and lost the nomination to Bill Clinton. Tsongas died in 1997.

Nikki Tsongas, a lawyer and director of external affairs at Middlesex Community College, has devoted much of the time since her husband's death to their three now-grown daughters, Ashley, 30, Katina, 27, and Molly 23. She says she is interested in the job because "I realize what you can do with the position." She is also interested in the same issues as her husband -- the war on terror, deficit reduction, the environment -- but says she understands she must make her own case to voters.

Part of that case, as she sees it, is being something more than a career politician. "I'm a different person than I was. I've taken charge of a household. I'm the dean of a college. . . . Life forces you to do things you might never have expected to do," says Tsongas, who recently moved from Lowell to Charlestown.

She's already made two courtesy telephone calls -- one to Meehan, who shares Paul Tsongas's Lowell base. Meehan, she says, "was very gracious" when she told him, "This is not personal at all. I just feel like I have to think about it." And she also called Coakley.

Tsongas believes "there can only be one woman in this race." Get the picture?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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