Monday, May 07, 2007

Interview with Dean Niki Tsongas

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with Middlesex Community College Dean Niki Tsongas, widow of former Senator Paul Tsongas and candidate for Congressman Marty Meehan's (D-Lowell) seat in Massachusetts' Fifth District. She counts her work at Middlesex, along with her work on the Arena Commission in Lowell and on the board of Fallon Community Health Plan as giving her a wide and unique range of public sector experience. She notes that the war in Iraq is the most important issue right now to the district and that she favors a withdrawal date, but additionally wants to ensure that the returning troops are cared for adequately when they come home. On education, she supports fully funding both Head Start and No Child Left Behind and expanding the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan programs.

On health care, she favors a Massachusetts-style multi-payer system as the fastest way to get to universal coverage. She would address global climate change by instituting a "cap-and-trade" system to regulate carbon emissions, siting how well that worked in curbing acid rain. In addition, she favors increased funding for research and development of alternative energy. The immigration policy she'd like to see is similar to Senator Ted Kennedy's bill from last year that created an avenue to citizenship for undocumented workers already here, but also took steps to secure the borders, and would make it more difficult for employers to employ undocumented workers.

Dean Tsongas is the fifth candidate for MA-05 that I have spoken with. In March, I posted my interviews with Rep. Jamie Eldridge and David O'Brien (who has since withdrawn his candidacy), and in April I posted interviews with Rep. Barry Finegold and Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue.

To get involved with Niki Tsongas' campaign, you can check out her website, or stop by her campaign office at 26 Market Street in Lowell.

Update: Charley over at BMG posted a response to this interview there which has garnered some interesting comments.

Read excerpts from the full interview inside
Q: Of all the Democratic candidates still in the race, you're the only one with no experience as an elected official. Do you think that will be an impediment if you're elected to Congress?

I believe that my long-term involvement, while not as an elected official but definitely in elective politics as well as virtually everything I've done has been in the public sector, I think those two together give me a unique perspective on the issues of the day.
Q: Of that public sector experience, what was the most important to you and the most valuable to the public?

I don't know that I can isolate one thing. I definitely think my past 9 ½ years at Middlesex Community College, where I've seen up close how important higher education is in this economy that we have, as well as to the long-term ability of an individual to thrive in society. I think I've learned a lot just from being a part of the largest community college in Massachusetts.

That isn't the only thing I've been doing. I've been on the board of the Arena Commission, where we've overseen the construction of two projects that really have been key to the revitalization of an old industrial city. I think that serving on the board of a small health plan has given me an interesting perspective on some of the challenges around health care. In the many nonprofit activities that I've engaged in, it's no one thing in itself. It's really a constellation of work that I've done that I think gives me a different perspective on, as I've said, the issues of the day.
Q: Which issues do you think are top on the minds of the voters of the Fifth District?
It's no surprise that the war in Iraq and the treatment of our veterans are foremost in everybody's mind. I favor setting a date for withdrawal of our troops and seeking a political solution to stabilizing Iraq and the region, but additionally I think caring for our returning veterans is an absolute obligation. These principles really are at the core of my beliefs on Iraq.

You may not know, but I'm a product of the military in that my father was a career military officer. He survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor and went on to serve in the South Pacific, and then was out briefly and went back in, and finally retired as a colonel when I was going to college. As a result I traveled all over the world and went to high school in Japan. I really do feel that we have an obligation to take care of those who are willing to serve on our behalf, whatever we may feel about the war in and of itself.
Q: Just this week, the president vetoed the supplemental war funding budget. What would you hope to see happen at this point?
I applaud Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congress for putting this issue front and center with the President. The Congress has to continue to do that. It's clear that tying the supplemental appropriations to it, the timeline is not going to pass, so I think the Democratic leadership is looking at other ways to continue to bring that pressure to bear. While I am in favor of setting a timeline, a firm date for withdrawal, at this point I think John Murtha's proposal to provide the funding on a two-month cycle continues to bring that pressure and the discourse forward.
Q: To go back a little bit, you mentioned your work at Middlesex County Community College. What do you think that has taught you about what the federal government should do in terms of education policy?
I think the federal government has to be very strategic. First of all, we have to come to an agreement that educating our citizenry is key to the long-term competitiveness of this country. It also is important to having a population that is engaged in the civic discourse on the issues of the day. So, on two levels, it's fundamentally important.

Education is traditionally the responsibility of the states and local government, but I think federal government can be very strategic in the use of its funds. I am in favor of fully funding Head Start and expanding that program so that we have access to that kind of early education. I think No Child Left Behind has become a huge burden on local communities, and yet I think it's important to create these benchmarks. I think we have to work to fully fund it so that it isn't such a burden on communities, and yet it is important long-term educationally.

My experience at a community college, where we labor very hard to keep tuition and fees low, is that it's still very difficult for many young people to pay for the cost of higher education. So at the federal level, we really have to expand the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan program. We have to continue to look at ways to upgrade the quality of our education and make sure that we have a system that is accessible to all.
Q: You also mentioned you're on the board of a health plan, is it –
It's Fallon Health Plan, a small health plan based in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Q: What would you like to see Congress do to help lower health care costs for Americans?
First and foremost, my family was the beneficiary of some of the most tremendous health care this country has to offer. It actually gave my husband year of life that he might not otherwise have had, so I have a very strong feeling that we have to have universal health care access for all. I would work in Congress for a system that guarantees a choice of physicians, the kind of excellence that we experienced, affordability -- we were fortunate to have most of those costs covered -- and timeliness of care.

Every other industrialized nation in the world provides that health care for all of its citizens. The crisis is real and growing. Over 47 million are uninsured, and approximately 16 million Americans are underinsured. So for me the issue is, which universal health care system can be put in place most quickly?
Q: What do you think that would be?
At this point, I think it's a multi-payer system, such as we have here in Massachusetts. I think it's great that Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to develop a universal health care plan, which is already being carefully watched by other states as well as at the federal level. The federal system was created so that the states could serve as laboratories, so you could experiment and iron out the kinks and find out what works and what doesn't before you implement a huge plan nationwide, and then it becomes so much more difficult to adjust. So I think we have an important model here, it's very promising, it deserves our attention.

But in the end, the real issue is, we've been talking about this for as long as I can remember. Finally we have an opportunity to do something about it. The real key is, how do we do it quickly, so we're not talking about another ten years? It seems to me that the kind of model Massachusetts is engaged in has the promise of being enacted. All the presidential candidates are talking about similar things as well. Clearly there's a consensus around this kind of system.

In the long run, if we work our way through this and we say, well, it doesn't work, that's another thing, but at least we're on a path and universal health care is in place in this form. Let's just see what happens. So at this point, I think the Massachusetts model deserves our attention. It's interesting to see a lot of proposals coming out of the Senate right now, that are somewhat reflective of our model.
Q: Congressman Meehan is known for championing campaign finance reform. What solutions do you favor, if any, on that issue?
One thing that I really do notice, being in this campaign, even since the presidential election of '92, is how much more important, how much more front and center this whole issue of raising funds has become. It's quite a process. It's clear to me that we have to address campaign finance reform. We've tried so many different things, at this point I'm not clear what the best direction to go is. There is this process in which we have to sort of vet the viability of candidates, so it's not an unimportant thing that we have to get out there and raise some funds. On the other hand, the sheer cost of it is really indefensible. What I would look at is ways to just control the cost of running a viable campaign.
Q: What solutions or ideas do you favor to reduce the amount of energy we use and the amount of carbon emissions we produce?
I think failure to address global warming is one of the great travesties of the Bush administration. Their sheer ignorance of the emerging science on the fact that this was real has put us in a place where we have very little time to address it seriously. So I don't think it's any longer a political issue, I think it's a critical generational issue at this point. Congress has to provide leadership, and we have an opportunity with a Democratic Congress. So, as a member of Congress, I'd work to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions, put an absolute cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: Would that include a trade mechanism also?
Cap and trade, yes. It's proven to be very effective in acid rain, so I think it's a model that works very efficiently. I know that in acid rain, it worked quicker than people thought. That's where I would head. We have to be a real leader in our district in the development of alternative technologies. It's an opportunity in terms of economic development, but it's also a necessity in terms of our need for alternative energy sources. Again, this is an issue we've been talking about for years, and now it's time to do something about it. We have an opportunity with a Democratic Congress and the consensus now that global warming is a fact, not a theory.
Q: What would you like to see happen in your district regarding alternative energy?
I recently signed on -- the Democrats are considering the 'Innovative Agenda' in Washington, which I'm fully supportive of, in fact I recently issued a press release on it. They're looking at lots of different ways, and one of the things is doubling the National Science Foundation funding, but also the small business innovation research program, there's a lot of funding in there for research and development.

As a nation, we have to provide pots of money for companies or universities to access to begin to develop alternative energy sources. There are companies in the district now, I think Ballard is one of them, where this kind of research is going on. As a district we have to be very opportunistic about all of that. A member of Congress can actually play a key role and can monitor it and help direct companies to funding opportunities, and be proactive about all of that. Rather than waiting for people to come to you, you can go out to them.
Q: What do you think America should do in regard to immigration policy?
It's clear we have a problem with undocumented immigrants, but I start with the notion that my husband was a first-generation American. His father came here when he was three years old, so Paul was actually the first in the family to be born here. When you can be a first-generation American and rise to run for President of the United States, it does tell you what a remarkable country this is. No wonder we are a magnet for people who are coming from countries where there is political turmoil, economic turmoil, very few opportunities.

That being said, the era when my husband's family came here, we had an open immigration system. You came through Ellis Island, but that was only to monitor any kind of health issue. We were really fueling an economy here, and we just didn't have the numbers of people here at the time either. Nevertheless, the politics and dynamics of the world still make us a magnet for people who want opportunity.

So, we have a problem, we have to get a handle on it, and the Kennedy bill really does provide some solutions by trying to secure the borders, giving an avenue to citizenship for those who are here, beginning to make it more difficult for employers to employ undocumented workers, some disincentives to doing that. But we have twelve million people here. We have to find a path to citizenship, and at the same time we have to get a handle and discourage the continuation of this kind of situation.

Overall, I think there are about 38 or 39 million foreign-born immigrants here. I think only 12 million of them are undocumented. So, we're always going to be accepting people from other countries. It's the legacy – Look at Lowell, Massachusetts. I went to the Cambodian opera this past weekend. It was fabulous, and actually I was very involved in bringing it to Lowell. And I thought, this is really the opportunity provided by the fact that we are such a diverse nation, and particularly the Fifth Congressional District, is such a diverse district. While we have to take seriously this problem, and I do, I also embrace the sort of opportunities that our diversity provides for us.
Q: If you're elected, it will be some time in October and there's just another year until the next election. If you can accomplish just one thing in that time, what would you like to make sure gets done, either for your district or more generally?
I think any one of us has to be part of the continued voice around bringing the war in Iraq to an end, and just continuing to press that agenda forward because it's coloring our ability to deal with anything else, in terms of the funding that it is absorbing, the energy it is absorbing, our position in the world. So fundamentally, there's that issue. Again, you're one of many in that capacity, but nevertheless I think it's key. Absolutely key.

I do think we have to address global warming. I think it's our responsibility generationally. Can you do it by yourself? No, but you become part of the majority that seriously attempts to address that.
Q: How can people get involved with your campaign?
Our headquarters is at 26 Market Street in Lowell, and our website is We welcome people just coming in.

I come out of a tradition of a grassroots campaign. My first campaign was with -- this was way before your time -- with Eugene McCarthy, who was the antiwar candidate in the Vietnam War in 1968. I traveled through New Hampshire and all over the States with thousands of students throwing attention to that issue and trying to change the dynamic around the war. I went on to be part of a campaign to reform Middlesex County, which has since been reformed, and every campaign, even our presidential campaign, was very grassroots. I will continue in that tradition. So we will be doing a lot of voter IDing, getting out and meeting as many people as possible. My 24-hour announcement tour is part of that. But the Internet is actually a new way of reaching out to people at a grassroots level, and we will use the Internet to do that.
Q: Anything else you'd like people to know about?
I think the other thing that's really important is all the issues around economic development in the Fifth Congressional District. Marty Meehan has been an activist member of Congress around that, and it has become the tradition of the seat, that apart from all the research and development dollars I talked about that whoever is a member of Congress becomes very engaged with the local communities and working with them as they identify projects that they think are key to their progress and finding ways for the federal government to be supportive to the extent it's possible.

One of the things I've come to appreciate in the course of this campaign is how the position of member of Congress is very unique in that it creates an opportunity to discuss important national and international issues on a very local scale. There's no other position that does that. The Senate tends to be too big, you have too much geography to deal with, and the Presidency takes place at a much higher level. As a Member of Congress, if I'm successful, I'm going to look at ways to continue the discussion. I think most do, but it really has struck me what an opportunity there is. And actually, a necessity, because these issues are so complex, they can't be addressed in two or three sentences. There has to be a discussion around them, and people who want to need to have an opportunity to be heard. This is the level of office at which that can really take place.