By Chris Camire
It was the summer of 2007, and Eileen Donoghue, Barry Finegold and Jamie Eldridge were zig-zagging the Merrimack Valley in hot pursuit of a seat in Congress.
The three candidates would debate 26 times during a Democratic primary that stretched from March to September — developing a mutual respect and friendship along the way.
Now, nearly four years after the special election for the 5th Congressional District began, the former rivals have found themselves on the same team — as colleagues in the 40-member Massachusetts Senate.
The three lawmakers say they are amused by their reunion, mostly because they never saw it coming.
“I don’t think any of us thought at the time that the winner of that primary would go to Congress and the next three top finishers would go to the state Senate,” said Finegold, an Andover Democrat who left the House last year to successfully run for the 2nd Essex and Middlesex District seat formerly held by Susan Tucker.
Several events had to fall into place to make it a reality.
A former member of the House, Eldridge, of Acton, was the first to join the Senate, when in 2008 he won the Middlesex and Worcester seat held by retiring Sen. Pam Resor.
At the time, it didn’t appear that any other Senate seats in the area would be opening. Then Sens. Steve Panagiotakos, of Lowell, and Tucker, of Andover, unexpectedly announced they would be retiring last year.
Donoghue and Finegold seized the opportunity, with both sailing to easy victories in the November election. Eldridge believes the 2007 congressional campaign helped prepare the three for their eventual Senate runs.
“It speaks to all of our persistence and also that running a strong race for a higher office, even if we come up short, can result in good things in the future,” he said.
Niki Tsongas, now serving her second full-term in Congress, eked out a victory over Donoghue in the 2007 primary. Eldridge finished a distant third with Finegold not far behind.
Jim Miceli, the fifth-place finisher, is also in the state Legislature, having represented Tewksbury and Wilmington since 1977. The candidates were vying to succeed Marty Meehan, who left Congress to become UMass Lowell’s chancellor.
During the primary the stakes were high and the competition fierce. But looking back on the campaign, Donoghue, Eldridge and Finegold each say it was defined by a sense of camaraderie, rather than cutthroat politics.
“I looked at them as colleagues,” said Donoghue. “I felt there was a mutual respect for each other. Sometimes you go through campaigns, which people in your business sometimes refer to as ‘bruising campaigns,’ and sometimes those bruises don’t heal. I think it was a very unique time and grouping, and I think we all approached it with the idea that this was an important seat.”
With the country in the midst of two wars and the demand for health-care reform growing, there was no shortage of serious issues to discuss during the campaign. But sometimes the candidates found themselves in situations they couldn’t help but laugh at.
“Probably the one moment I’ll never forget is when we were in Andover and somehow we all ended up debating in a barn,” said Eldridge. “We were literally sitting on hay.”
Finegold recalls a debate at Ferns Country Store in Carlisle in which the candidates sat on rocking chairs on a porch.
“It was 100 degrees out,” said Finegold. “I remember laughing about it. And there were some debates that I swear had more campaign workers in the audience than voters.”
Relationships were forged along the campaign trail.
Finegold and Donoghue’s husband, John O’Connor, hit it off. And Finegold said his 86-year-old grandmother, Marian Shapiro, adores Donoghue.
“She came to so many of the debates, and Eileen was very friendly to her,” said Finegold. “One of these days I’m going to find out the two of them got together for lunch without me.”
In the coming year the three senators will be forced to address a series of daunting challenges — from reducing a $1.5 billion budget deficit to soaring health-care costs to reviving resort casinos. The 2007 special election gave them a familiarity with each other, and the Merrimack Valley as a whole, that they say will allow them work together.
“At the end of the day, it really bodes well for the people of everyone’s district that we’re able to work well together and have a greater appreciation of the issues that affect our communities,” said Finegold. “When I bring up a Dracut issue, they will have an appreciation for it because they know the businesses and the people there. And I’ll have a greater understanding of issues facing their districts.”