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New state senator vows her focus will be on the economy

Donoghue says she is ‘very aware of how the economy has affected us all and some people in a very serious way.’ Donoghue says she is ‘very aware of how the economy has affected us all and some people in a very serious way.’
By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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For Eileen Donoghue, getting people back to work will be the focus when the Lowell Democrat takes office Jan. 5 as the new state senator from the 1st Middlesex District.

“I fully understand the challenges we are facing with the economy and jobs in Massachusetts,’’ said Donoghue, a former Lowell city councilor and mayor who won a three-way race Nov. 2 to succeed retiring Democratic incumbent Steven C. Panagiotakos.

“I heard it throughout the campaign as I traveled the district and it’s clearly issue one for most people,’’ Donoghue said. “I’m very aware of how the economy has affected us all and some people in a very serious way. At the same time, I’m excited about going to Beacon Hill and optimistic we can work together and through the challenges.’’

Donoghue said she is not daunted by the task because she recalls Lowell was facing similar economic challenges when she first ran for the council in 1995.

“I look at it as a similar climate. But we took them on and did make changes and defied the odds [faced by] an aging urban city. And on the state level, I’m anxious to do the same. . . . I’m confident I can work with anyone regardless of their party or their outlook. From what I’m hearing, people just want results,’’ said Donoghue, who will represent Dunstable, Groton, Lowell, Pepperell, Tyngsborough, and Westford.

A local lawyer and an active community volunteer, Donoghue, 56, was a city councilor from 1996 to 2008, serving as mayor from 1998 to 2002. In Lowell, which has a city manager, the mayor — elected by the council from within its ranks — chairs the City Council and the School Committee.

Donoghue ran in a special election in 2007 to fill the 5th District Congressional seat when Martin T. Meehan resigned. She finished second in a five-way Democratic primary to Lowell Democrat Niki Tsongas, who went on to win the seat.

In her state Senate race this year, Donoghue won a primary contest with Christian L. Doherty, a former congressional aide to Meehan, and went on to defeat Republican James J. Buba and independent Patrick A. O’Connor, both of Lowell, in the final.

Donoghue faces the challenge of filling the shoes of Panagiotakos, a 14-year incumbent who chairs the influential Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

Kevin P. Broderick, the vice chairman of the Lowell City Council and a Democrat who supported Donoghue, said Panagiotakos’s departure from the Senate is a “tremendous loss’’ for the district. But he said Donoghue is the right person to succeed him.

“She has tremendous experience at the local level in building consensus and getting things done,’’ he said.

Tyngsborough Selectwoman Elizabeth Coughlin, a Democratic State Committee member who backed Donoghue, said the district is “very lucky’’ to have Donoghue taking over for Panagiotakos.

“She is very knowledgeable about the needs of municipalities. She understands how the system works administratively, she knows what the issues are because of her experience, and we are confident she will be effective in representing us,’’ Coughlin said.

Donoghue, who grew up in Holyoke, is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Suffolk University Law School. She and her husband, John O’Connor, moved to Lowell in 1988.

She credits Niki Tsongas’s late husband, former US senator Paul Tsongas — then a neighbor — with recruiting her to run for city councilor in 1995. Elected that year, she was tapped by her fellow councilors to serve as mayor after just one term.

Donoghue looks back at her mayoral years as “times of tremendous progress here in the city. Lots of projects came to fruition,’’ she said, including the construction of the Tsongas Arena and Lelacheur Park.

To prepare for her new role, Donoghue plans to meet with elected officials in the district. She also expects to continue a transition effort she has begun with Panagiotakos, whom she calls a “great mentor’’ and friend.

In taking aim at the economy, Donoghue said she will promote the need for the state “to do everything it can to assist small businesses in creating jobs.’’

That would include trying to address the high cost of health care, Donoghue said, noting that a common theme she hears from small businesses is that skyrocketing health insurance costs are posing an impediment to hiring new workers.

She also wants to investigate the difficulty many businesses are facing in getting banks to extend lines of credit and to see if there is anything government could do to spur banks to be more cooperative.

Donoghue said whatever solutions the government seeks to the state’s economic and other issues will need to be cost-effective.

“The message was loud and clear’’ on Nov. 2, she said. “People can not tolerate more taxes, so they are looking to their leaders to work hard, work smarter, try to get things done. We have to do more with less. That’s really the climate we are in.’’