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Niki Tsongas considers politics for herself

BOSTON --In 1984, the year he left the U.S. Senate to return home after being diagnosed with cancer, Paul Tsongas lamented that his career had taken precedence over that of his wife, Niki. She was a law student before becoming the mother of their three daughters.

"Our life together had pretty much flowed according to my career needs," the Lowell Democrat and 1992 presidential candidate wrote in his book, "Heading Home." "It had been a difficult decision, but she had come to accept it and live with it. Inevitably, however, it meant that I defined who we were to the outside world."

On Friday, Niki Tsongas continued to preserve the memory of her husband, who died in January 1997 at age 55, by handing out college scholarships in his name. But she also made clear that if the opportunity presents, she will forge ahead with her own political career.

The 60-year-old is planning to run for the 5th Congressional District seat should its current occupant, Rep. Marty Meehan, be named the next chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. The Lowell Democrat is one of three finalists, and a decision is expected by March 14.

If Niki Tsongas were successful in the resulting special election, she would reclaim for herself the House seat her late husband held from 1975-79. She took a leave Thursday as dean of external affairs at Middlesex College, her most recent job after returning to Boston University to earn her law degree.

"I think serving in Congress is one of the greatest opportunities that can befall any public-minded person. And I think my whole life I have been public-minded, whether supporting Paul in his work in the public arena, or in all of the work that I've done," she said after a Statehouse ceremony honoring the 2006-07 Paul E. Tsongas Scholars.

Each received free tuition and fees to one of the state's nine public colleges, including Fitchburg State College and Bridgewater State College.

"I think Congress is setting the stage now for the 21st Century," Niki Tsongas added. "There's a lot of issues that we have to get on track or we'll forever be playing catch-up."

She has labeled the war in Iraq "ill-advised at the beginning," but also supports an withdrawal that protects the more than 135,000 American troops who are in-country. She wants to help devise a solution to the nation's health care problems, which have left more than 45 million without insurance coverage.

She also believes more needs to be done to combat global warming, belying her late husband's environmental streak. That said, Niki Tsongas says she would not run as a legacy candidate.

"I have to say that Paul gave me every reason to be very proud of his positions, and yet I didn't always agree with him. I would say there would be some similarities, but I don't see myself running to perpetuate or simply address things he did 15 years ago," she said.

She also would not be alone as a candidate.

Among Democrats, state Sens. Steven Baddour of Methuen and Sue Tucker of Andover have been mentioned as possible candidates, as have Reps. Barry Finegold of Andover and Jim Miceli of Wilmington. In addition, Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue has made clear she will not defer to Tsongas in any campaign.

Among Republicans, former state Rep. Donna Cuomo of North Andover and Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan also have discussed campaigns.

The 5th District, which extends from Haverhill in the northeast across Middlesex County to Bolton and Berlin in the southwest, was the first in Massachusetts to elect a female representative, Edith Nourse Rogers.

She held the seat for 35 years before dying in 1960, and since then, only two woman have represented Massachusetts in Congress: Louise Day Hicks and Margaret Heckler.

The three Tsongas daughters have followed their father's example of public service. Ashley, 33, works for Oxfam America helping Hurricane Katrina victims. Katina, 29, is managing Barack Obama's presidential campaign in New Hampshire's 2nd Congressional District. And Molly, 25, works for a Philadelphia group that arranges for municipalities to get power from renewable sources.

Their mother has already met with officials from Emily's List, which finances women candidates, to discuss possible support for a campaign. Niki Tsongas has also explored possible support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in January became the first woman to lead either chamber of Congress.

Tsongas believes electing a woman to the state's all-male delegation is important.

"I think I would bring a different kind of voice to the discussion," she said.

Dennis Kanin, a Boston attorney who managed Paul Tsongas's political campaigns, said Niki Tsongas would be a strong candidate because "she has lived in the real world." He cited her work on the boards of a health maintenance organization, a bank, a repertory theater and her experience starting Lowell's first all-female law practice.

He also cited her political skills.

"Paul used to say that she was a better politician than he was because he was very low key and introverted and she's more out there and extroverted and very congenial and someone that people really, really like," Kanin said.