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Eagle-Tribune: Tsongas at Haverhill High

By: Peter Francis,

HAVERHILL — Although he has alluded to the size of the metaphorical button he would press to launch nuclear weapons against North Korea, the only button on President Donald Trump's desk is the one he presses when he wants a Diet Coke.

So said Congresswoman Niki Tsongas Thursday during her conversation with upperclassmen in Haverhill High School's library  Thursday morning, possibly her final appearance at the Monument Street school as the representative for the 3rd District.

While Trump came up in conversation at times Thursday, Tsongas spent much of her time addressing students from the school's advanced placement government and gender studies on how Washington has changed since she arrived in 2007 — and how it will be women who continue to change it after she departs later this year.

From an early life spent abroad with a father who was a career officer in the U.S. Air Force, to college years spent at Smith College in Northampton, to meeting and marrying her husband, late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, the congresswoman reflected on a life of service with students.

"It had been 25 years since Massachusetts had a woman in Congress — and I couldn't accept that," said Tsongas of the Democratic primary she won in 2007 to succeed outgoing Congressman Marty Meehan of what was then the 5th District. "In a split second, I decided to run. Because women can't win if women can't run."

While Tsongas, 71, said Thursday she was one of only two women in that primary race, five of the 13 candidates running to succeed her seat in Washington are women.

"The only way things change is if we are there," said Tsongas, adding that EMILY's List, an advocacy group committed to electing pro-choice women, has seen a spike in women seeking their help in running for office. "In 2015-2016, 900 women reached out to them for help. This year, 26,000 women have reached out to them.

"We're there. You're not getting rid of us," she said.

Congress, Tsongas said, was a far different place even in 2008. While women now make up 18 percent of the senators and representatives on Capitol Hill, Tsongas believes that number will continue to rise, to the point where there may be several women vying for presidential nominations in the coming years.

Through her time on the Armed Services Committee, Tsongas spoke of her efforts to increase safety for women serving in the military, preventing sexual assault and improving body armor for women in combat, and she told students of her experiences on the Natural Resources Committee, which gave her firsthand looks at the struggles faced by larger states where large swaths of land are federally protected and thus unavailable for development.

Tsongas' decade on Capitol Hill has seen three presidents, countless votes and lots of time drilling into issues that rarely make headlines. But her likely farewell message to the assembled Hillies Thursday was a simple one.

"Public service is probably one of the best ways you can live your life," said Tsongas. "I would encourage all of you to think about it in one form or another. It doesn't have to be through elected politics, there are many ways you can serve your community, your state or your country."

Following a brief question-and-answer segment, in which students asked her about President Trump and relations with North Korea, military spending, net neutrality, and term limits, Tsongas departed to meet with Methuen Mayor James Jajuga. Haverhill High seniors Hannah Bessette and Molly Muhigi said that seeing and asking questions of Tsongas reminds them that the congresswoman who they've read about and seen many times before is a real person .

"It's exciting. It makes you think you can do the same thing," said Muhigi. "I think she's a pretty awesome, articulate lady. In such an explosive time, it's interesting to see women in Washington."

Bessette has aspirations of heading to Washington around the same time Tsongas is leaving, hoping to attend Howard University later this year.

She said she interested to see what will become of the presidential aspirations of women on both sides of the aisle, namely Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina.

"I think she's a strong lady who has a huge and growing presence," said Bessette of Harris. She added that she was impressed to hear Tsongas speak about her decision to vote against reopening the federal government after the recent weekend shutdown.

Advanced placement government teacher Tom Jordan and gender studies teacher Lori Capra both confirmed that enrollment in their courses and the school's civics class have risen, a strong indicator of a more engaged student body in the era of the Trump administration.

In Jordan's class, 27 students have been split up into nearly even parties and are working on drafting legislation, sending into committees, and actively filibustering their bills.

"They're all interested in and asking about procedure today because that's what they're doing in class right now," said Jordan. And while Capra's gender studies course began at the start of this semester, she said Tsongas' appearance Thursday was a "great way to kick (the class) off."

As social movements against sexual assault and centered around women's rights have sprung to the forefront of our national dialogue, Capra added that Tsongas' efforts to combat sexual assault in the military have not been lost on her students.

This semester, Capra's gender studies course has 18 students in it, three of whom are boys.

"Last year, there was only one boy out of 10 students," she said.

"There's an increased interest and engagement in politics, and it's mirrored in the enrollment in these classes," said Jordan, adding that there are a total of 60 students enrolled in civics courses at Haverhill High this semester.

Source: Peter Francis, Eagle Tribune Staff Photo