Monday, April 16, 2007

Interview With Councilor Eileen Donoghue

This weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with Lowell City Councilor, and former Mayor, Eileen Donoghue, one of six Democratic candidates vying for Congressman Marty Meehan's (D-Lowell) seat in the Fifth District. She points to the economic renewal of the city of Lowell as something she's the most proud of in her public life. She also noted her work on the Lowell School Committee and the small academies that operate within the high school and provide specialized programs to select students. In education, she would like to see No Child Left Behind and special education mandates fully funded on the Federal level. She thinks we should end our involvement in iraq and bring the troops home. She proclaimed her support for a Massachusetts-style plan to get to universal health insurance coverage over a single-payer plan.

In addition, Councilor Donoghue praised Congressman Meehan's work on campaign finance reform. She also advocated incentives for consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles and for companies to pursue renewable energy. Though she did say that business leaders she has talked to were against the idea of enacting a meals tax in Lowell, she applauded Governor Deval Patrick for pushing to allow cities to raise other sources of revenue. Donoghue indicated that her priority would be making sure that our returning veterans were being taken care of.

Councilor Donoghue is the fourth candidate for MA-05 that I have spoken with. Last month, I posted my interviews with David O'Brien and Rep. Jamie Eldridge and last week, I posted an interview with Rep. Barry Finegold.

To get involved with Councilor Donoghue's campaign, you can check out her website,

Read excerpts from the full interview inside
Q: You've been on the Lowell City Council for 12 years now. What has been your most important achievement there?

During these 12 years -- I served as Mayor for four of them -- when I first got involved, Lowell had been in a bad way, suffering from the economic downturn of the late eighties and early nineties. I think what we've been able to achieve here in Lowell over the past 10-12 years has a lot to do with the economic development initiatives that we have put through in a real meaningful way. There were certain catalysts that really jump-started some of the revitalization of the downtown -- the arena, the ballpark -- all of which were tough sells back then because they were controversial projects.

Once those became a reality and they were a success, what we next went to was how do we revitalize the downtown. I'm proud of what we've been able to do by forming and forging public partnerships: public-public partnerships with the local government and the state in many cases -- the ballpark and the arena are prime examples -- as well as public-private partnerships. I was instrumental in leading the charge on artist live-work space and developing the Ayer Lofts and making certain that that project became a reality. That was a catalyst for millions of dollars in investment by the private sector because we now have about a thousand market-rate units either online or coming online in the near future in the downtown. So, I'm proud of those achievements.

But if I switch gears, when I was Mayor and I chaired the school committee, those years I learned a great deal about the challenges that not only our school district but every school district faces. Through the challenges that an urban district faces in the day of unfunded mandates, we were able to achieve a lot of success even working with minimal dollars.

I'll give you an example. One of them has to do with our high school, which is a great high school but it's one of the biggest in the state. At the time when I chaired the school committee there were about 16,500 students. We had a high school that then was about 36, 3700, now it's just under 4,000, which is a lot of kids by today's standards to have under one roof. What we came up during those years and implemented in a very successful way are academies within the high school. The first one was what's known as the Latin Lyceum academy which is really an exam school similar to Boston Latin, a school within a school. We have a communications academy, we have several academies that have developed so that it gives students an opportunity to go to school, albeit in a very large urban high school, but have a specialized feel and almost a smaller feel, if they choose, in an area that is of interest to them.

So that's been, again, trying to work creatively, come up with ideas that aren't necessarily budget-busters, but improving and working with what you have. I think we, in those years, did a good job. I think the school district has continued to do a good job. We've implemented programs that we are now seeing some of the kids who went through the school and particularly the tenth grade, their MCAS scores, we're seeing real improvement now by doing certain things in the lower grades. All of those things are important.
Q: Would you like to see national grants to encourage that sort of education model, at the federal level?
At the federal level, if I'm the representative in Washington, what I would like to see the federal government do is fulfill their duties to the local governments, both state and local, by funding their mandates, starting with the No Child Left Behind Act. They have really shirked their responsibilities. It was underfunded to begin with, and I remember the superintendent of our district saying, "You know, if they don't fund this, it's going to be just another drain and an administrative nightmare," and that's exactly what happened.

When I was Mayor and chair of the committee, some of the big drain -- and it continues to be -- is the fact that they don't fund special education. It had been funded at one point up to 40% of the budget, again, mandates from the federal government, but now in some areas it's down to 12 or 13%. And the cost is skyrocketing. What I would like to see is the federal government really fund those mandates, and really partner the way they should be doing with us, in every district across the Fifth and across the country, quite frankly.

The other thing I would like to see them do is reinstitute programs like the community school program that they had in effect at one point in time, where we could utilize the resources of the schools to have at least some of these schools open until 9:00 at night. Kids could do homework, computer labs, gym, things that keep them actively engaged in a structured setting. I think those are things that are important to every youngster and to our society in general.

So, those are just some of the ideas that I have that I would be a real strong voice for, I can tell you. Because when you've been on the receiving end, you see firsthand what some of the effects are on the students, on the teachers, when you have these unfunded mandates. That money has to come from somewhere. The resources have to come from somewhere. And unfortunately, it comes out of good-quality programs that kids could benefit from, that get slashed because of these things. I think it's a real serious problem.
Q: When you've been out talking to people, what do you think has been the number one issue of the minds of the voters in the Fifth District?
I think it depends on who you talk to and where you are. Certainly the war in Iraq is a big concern on a number of levels. The war is draining this country, not just financially but emotionally. Everybody I've talked to, I haven't run across one single person who doesn't agree with me and many others that we should end our involvement and bring the troops home from Iraq. When I say it depends on who you are, in some areas, particularly in the cities, there's more of a concern for the economy, jobs, economic development, and in relation to that the impact the war in Iraq is having on us domestically. I think the war in Iraq is an overarching issue.

In Methuen, and in Lawrence yesterday, talking to groups in the Latino community, there's a real concern about jobs, there's a real concern about education and costs of education. We had a very robust discussion about, how do you pay for a college education today? The same opportunities aren't there that were there in the past. So, what can the federal government do? Those are concerns.

The other area, in Hudson I was talking to some people about the health care crisis -- the cost of health care, the cost of prescription drugs, especially for seniors.
Q: What do you think the federal government can do to lower the costs of health care?
I think first of all we have to have coverage for everybody. Looking at the Massachusetts plan, I think it's a good start. That's something we should first do. I sit on the board of one of our local hospitals, Saints Medical Center, and I have seen year in and year out the pressures on the community hospitals from so many different angles. One thing is for sure, the ranks of people coming into the hospital with no insurance is growing. It's unfortunate because we -- when I say we, I mean all of us -- are paying for this health care crisis one way or another, whether it's through the uninsured health care pool which is never enough to pay for what the hospitals really provide, or the hospital is taking it on the chin. One way or another we're paying for it, but we're doing it at the most expensive rung of the ladder.

What I would want to do is examine, what are the real dollars going out the door paying for our broken system right now? Let's step back, and that's why I like the Massachusetts plan as far as the start because it's affordable, it's not really killing a small business in order to get coverage. At least you're offering the option for someone to get primary care or preventative medicine so that they're not all landing at the emergency room and [getting treated] in a very cost-inefficient way.
Q: What's your opinion on single-payer healthcare?
I would prefer to pursue fixing the system without going to single-payer first. I wouldn't rule it out, but I think it's certainly possible and I would want to pursue those options first. Again, I point to the Massachusetts law at least as a starting point.
Q: You'll be replacing Congressman Meehan, and what he is most known for is his efforts in campaign finance reform. Do you favor any solutions for that, and would you continue some of the work he's done?
I think he did a great job in terms of trying to get at the soft money problem in campaign finance. I will say that there's probably room for more reform. I know Marty had other issues he tried to champion as well. It is incredible to me how expensive it is -- the money you have to raise once you're a candidate, you realize that. I don't have an answer for it, but I certainly want to explore, is there a way to make it possible for someone to put their name on the ballot and not have to either spend every waking moment of their lives begging for money or be beholden to special interests. I think that's really, really important.

Even at this stage, just being a candidate, I can't imagine -- people who are incumbents for a great deal of time, I'm certain, have a tremendous advantage and that's not necessarily a good thing for our government or for democracy. When you look at how expensive these campaigns have become, I think something has to get [done]. Certainly what Marty did was a benefit, but there's probably room for more reform, and I know that's a huge challenge. I know all the special interests probably are funding any roadblocks to that path.
Q: Speaking of which, I know you managed to raise the most money out of the candidates in the first quarter. How much of that was loaned to your campaign and how much was from donations?
I don't have the exact figures because we haven't even finished the final report -- we were dealing with the FEC all day today, and with passwords and codes, all of this. I will answer that a large amount was a loan, the reason being that I got my fundraising operation up and going about four days before the March 31 deadline. Though I had gotten some pledges for about a week before that, I made a decision that I was going to loan money to my campaign, and continue to raise money, which I have done and am doing, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I want to make sure I am competitive in this race. Number two, because I'm asking people to support me and invest in my candidacy, and I want them to know that I'm invested as well. If I didn't think I could win, I certainly wouldn't do that. I'm not crazy. And number three, I think number three is the most important, in a race like this, with the short duration, relatively speaking, and a big district, I want to make sure that I have the appropriate time and energy to be out there meeting voters, talking -- I think this is a grassroots sort of campaign, and God forbid I'm tied to a phone for 15 hours a day. You can raise dollars, but that doesn't always equal votes. So for all those reasons, it was a -- I don't even have the exact figure, but it certainly wasn't over the legal amount, it wasn't over 350. But the report will be finished, I'm hoping by tomorrow afternoon.
Q: Let's talk about the environment. What would you like to see done to try to counter the effects of climate change?
I think there are a number of things that the federal government can and should do, because it would seem that most thinking people are no longer debating whether it's real. The obvious answer to me would be that we are too dependent on foreign sources of oil, so how do we get off of that, what do we need to do, and what can be done. As I look at the president's position and policies, they seem backwards. The incentives and tax breaks to the big oil companies are ridiculous. We should have incentives for those companies that are doing research and development for renewable or alternative energy solutions, I think that could be built into the tax incentives and/or funding incentives. I think there should be incentives, most likely tax credits, for people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles and for companies to pursue renewable energy. All of these things, it sounds like lots of legislation but the fact is, those are the types of incentives that can bring about real change. I'm sure there are a whole lot of other things that can be done, and I look forward over the next weeks and months to talking to, listening to, and researching some of those options.
Q: As a municipal figure, what's your opinion of Governor Patrick's package of municipal reforms and his Municipal Partnership Act? Particularly some reforms he's been talking about lately, like the local tax options, the telecommunications no longer being exempt from property taxes.
I applaud him for bringing forward some new ideas, some new options. Each community has to decide for itself whether it's right for them, but I don't think there's anything wrong with providing options. I've heard from a lot of folks in my community who, for example, the additional tax whether it has to do with meals tax and so forth, that they aren't in favor of it. The business owners are clearly against that. They feel very strongly that it would be prohibitive to them. So, it clearly has to be decided on a case-by-cases basis. It depends on the community. I know Boston has lobbied hard for some of those. What's right for Boston may or may not be right for the city of Lowell, or Chelmsford and so forth. But personally, I don't have any problem with the governor trying to make those available to communities for them to decide on a case-by-case basis.
Q: If you can focus on just one thing and get one thing through to help your district, what would be your number one priority?
Immediately getting down there, I guess you'd want to make sure that whatever appropriations the Congressman had provided for were taken care of and watched and shepherded through, so that would be an immediate action item.

Going around the district, talking to people, one of the first things I would want to do is look to how we're treating or caring for the veterans coming home. Whether it's veterans in the VA hospitals within my district, which are at risk right now, or also on a national basis, I think it's frightful what's happening in terms of the veteran's administration and the tens of thousands who are really in need of services who are coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan, but particularly Iraq, but they're not getting those services. Personally I think something has to be done and that has to be addressed. There's a whole laundry list of things that I'd want to do, but that is one thing I feel very strongly about. Edith North Rogers, who was from Lowell and one of the first women to go to Congress and the longest-serving woman in New England, in Congress from 1925 to 1960, she was one of the coauthors and cosponsors of the GI Bill of Rights in WWII. It may be time to revisit that.
Q: How can people get involved in your campaign?
My website is up and running at That's probably the most effective way.