On February 14, 1941, Paul Ethemios Tsongas was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a Greek-immigrant father who ran a local dry-cleaning business and a native Massachusetts mother who died when he was six years old. He attended public schools and worked his way through Dartmouth College, graduating the year after John F. Kennedy’s Presidential election. Inspired by Kennedy’s call to service, Tsongas was among the first group of volunteers to join the Peace Corps, serving for two years as a teacher in Ethiopia and later as a Training Coordinator for a year in the West Indies. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1967 and passed the Massachusetts Bar the following year. Inspired by his Peace Corps experience to continue in public service, and motivated to help his home town recover from the decades-long economic decline of its industrial textile mills, Tsongas ran for the Lowell City Council in 1969 and served until 1972. He then held the elected position of Middlesex County Commissioner from 1973 to 1975 before winning a seat in the House of Representatives. After serving four years in the House, he won election to the U. S. Senate where he served from 1979 until 1985. As he prepared to run for a second Senate term in 1983, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His illness compelled him to drop out of politics in order to devote time to his family and his health.
After a 1986 bone marrow transplant, Tsongas’s cancer was considered to be in remission, and in 1991 he became the first Democrat to officially announce his candidacy for his party’s 1992 Presidential nomination. He won the New Hampshire primary along with several other early contests initially making him the front runner, but ultimately financial limitations forced him to concede to the better funded campaign of Bill Clinton.
His short run, however, had enormous impact. As Mark Shields pointed out on the News Hour, it was Paul Tsongas who “shaped the entire debate of that campaign.”
In an 86-page pamphlet that Tsongas self-published and distributed freely at campaign events titled “A Call to Economic Arms: Forging a New American Mandate,” he promoted a comprehensive plan to revitalize American manufacturing through fiscal responsibility coupled with an assortment of proactive government policies. “Just as we deploy our men and women in the Persian Gulf,” he explained in his introduction, “we must deploy every American to stop our economic bleeding, to restore our social fabric, and to meet head on the environmental and energy threats to our well being.
His Presidential run ended his political career, yet Tsongas continued to promote his economic causes, locally with his continuous advocacy for the Lowell Plan, which he helped establish in 1979, and nationally by co-founding the Concord Coalition in 1992 with New Hampshire Republican Senator Warren Rudman. With over 200,000 members nationwide, the Concord Coalition is still a thriving, non-partisan, grassroots organization that continues to actively advocate for a balanced federal budget and responsible fiscal policy. Likewise, in its second generation, the Lowell Plan continues to drive innovative economic urban development in downtown Lowell with a major new phase just now beginning to renovate another large area of the city’s old textile mills.
In May 1996, Tsongas underwent a second bone-marrow transplant to treat a disorder that can occur after recovery from lymphoma. Less than a year later, on January 18, 1997, Paul Tsongas died from liver failure and pneumonia that resulted from his medical treatments.