LOWELL -- It was said often following the 2007 Democratic 5th Congressional District primary that had the vote been two weeks later -- not the day after Labor Day -- Eileen Donoghue might have eked out a nail-biter over Niki Tsongas.
When the dust settled, Tsongas had 35 percent of the vote, compared to Donoghue's 31 percent. Three other Democrats in the race finished way back: state Sens. Jamie Eldridge and Barry Finegold, of Acton and Andover, respectively, and state Rep. James Miceli of Wilmington.
Donoghue, now a state senator, is at the top of the list of potential candidates who might seek to replace Tsongas, who announced Wednesday she will not be a candidate for re-election in 2018 after serving more than 10 years representing what is now the 3rd District.
Eldridge and Finegold also are being mentioned as possible candidates this time.
The rare open seat in the state's nine-member delegation has triggered plenty of speculation on who's considering running. Other names in the mix: Ellen Murphy Meehan of Andover, a former health-care executive who now owns a consulting firm; former Andover resident Daniel Koh, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; Lowell City Councilor Rodney Elliott; Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera; Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini; Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke; Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale; businessman Sal Lupoli, of Chelmsford; Groton state Rep.
Democratic political analyst Michael Goldman said the list of candidates mulling a run will be long and diverse.
Goldman said the list will likely grow to include the names of community activists and business executives. That list will be culled to those who have strong name recognition, a solid base of support, and the ability to raise a lot of money to canvas a broad district that stretches from Haverhill to Gardner and includes nearly all of Greater Lowell.
"In the end the field will be small and be dictated by those three factors," said Goldman, who writes a weekly political column for The Sun.
Tsongas won the seat in 2007. Her late husband, Paul Tsongas, represented the 5th District before he became a U.S. senator. He ran for president in 1992, when he won seven primary states in opposing Bill Clinton.
Several politicians contacted throughout the day Wednesday by The Sun declined to comment on any political aspirations out of deference to Niki Tsongas.
Early Wednesday, Eldridge said, "Today I am focused on being grateful to all Rep. Tsongas has done for the district, and all the issues she's committed to."
Hours later, Eldridge contacted The Sun to say he is indeed thinking about running.
In an interview with The Sun, Murphy Meehan said, "I have tremendous respect for Congresswoman Tsongas and all she's accomplished. I am talking to my family and others and I am considering running."
Murphy Meehan, who lives in Andover, has a close relationship with Tsongas. She chaired several of Tsongas' re-election campaigns.
State Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and the man she succeeded in the 2nd Essex Middlesex District, Finegold, also acknowledged thinking about running for Congress.
"I am eagerly exploring the opportunity of running for this congressional seat and how to best continue in Niki's footsteps as an indefatigable advocate for the priorities of the women, men, and children of the 3rd District," L'Italien said in a statement. "There is no better way to effect that motto than by ensuring that Niki is succeeded by another woman from the Merrimack Valley. We need a woman who can continue to advocate for Niki's long-standing priorities: accessible and affordable health care for all, protection of individuals with disabilities and the elderly, and better educational opportunities for all of our children."
Besides L'Italien's hometown of Andover, the district includes Lawrence, Dracut and Tewksbury.
Finegold said in a statement: "I am intimately aware of the local issues and will be taking some time with my family to consider a decision regarding this race."
Donoghue, meanwhile, said she was surprised by Tsongas' decision. "But I Iove what I am doing, and that's not hyperbole."
Donoghue noted that in the April 23 edition of The Sun's Sunday Political Column, Tsongas was quoted as saying: "I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm not going anywhere but to work. I'm happy, healthy, and committed to helping my constituents on issues that are so important to them."
When asked about persistent rumors she will not seek re-election in 2018, Tsongas said: "I think it is age-driven. I'm 71 and some people might be thinking I'm going to retire. But that's not something I'm thinking about."
Donoghue's district includes Lowell and several smaller communities west of the city that gives her a base of support. She acknowledged getting "dozens" of calls urging her to consider running again.
Donoghue replaced former Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos, whose name frequently is mentioned as a potential candidate for Congress. The former senator-turned-lobbyist said he will not be a candidate.
Panagiotakos offered his own list of potential candidates: Fiorentini, Rivera, Eldridge, Donoghue, state Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell, who used to work for him when he was in the Senate; Lowell lawyer Michael Gallagher; Lowell-area Republican operative Mary Burns and Dracut businessman Michael Kuenzler.
Gallagher, who is co-chair of Tsongas's finance committee, told The Sun: "If Sen. Donoghue decides not to run, I will certainly be interested. But I think Sen. Donoghue would make a great member of Congress."
Koh declined to comment when reached by The Sun. However, several sources told the newspaper he is seriously considering running.
Fiorentini, Haverhill's mayor for more than a decade, told The Sun he's concentrating on being re-elected this fall but "I'm not ruling anything out."
Rivera was more direct. In a statement, he said: "I am running to be the mayor of the city of Lawrence and I love my job. I will not be running for Congress next year. Whomever runs for this seat will have a large task to fill Niki's shoes."
Elliott said he's concentrating on his City Council re-election effort this fall, but added he wouldn't rule out a run, saying: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Hawke, the Gardner mayor, said in a statement: "I never even gave that a thought."
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