U.S. Rep. Martin T. Meehan was chosen Tuesday to become the next chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, buoying local officials who believe the high-profile Democrat can revitalize the small campus and the Merrimack Valley with his political and fund-raising skills.
Meehan emerged from an initial field of nearly 80 candidates, dominated by out-of-state academics, by promising university leaders that he would devote much of his time to raising money, particularly to fund teaching and scholarship on nanotechnology, biomanufacturing and several other new sciences that are the focus of UMass-Lowell's development plans, according to university and local officials.
Word of Meehan's imminent departure from Washington released years of pent-up political ambition in Massachusetts. At least seven Democrats said they will run for the state's first congressional opening in six years, and as many as three Republicans have expressed their interest to party leaders.
Niki Tsongas, a Democrat and the widow of U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, is the highest-profile candidate in the race so far. Besides having strong name recognition, she has signed on Doug Rubin, senior strategist for Gov. Deval Patrick's campaign and has attracted big-name donors.
But the contest could be fierce, with at least three state representatives, a mayor, a former mayor, and a veteran sheriff in the mix of potential candidates. Political analysts estimate the eventual nominees will have to raise between $1 million and $2.5 million each.
The contenders will be competing not only against one another for money and volunteers, but with the presidential campaigns. Although the dates of the race have not been set yet by the governor, the primary campaign is likely to occur next fall, just when the New Hampshire primary kicks into high gear.
"Obviously, over a period of time, I've become one of the more prolific fund-raisers in Congress," said Meehan, whose campaign chest is one of the richest in Congress. "The ability to meet with people, to get them enthusiastic, the ability to identify people who would be willing to contribute - these are all things I bring."
Officials in the Merrimack Valley, which has struggled with a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, said they hoped a galvanized UMass-Lowell would translate into economic benefits for the region by attracting high-tech businesses.
"The fact that he sees the university's role as, certainly, educating students, but also as developing programs that are going to put the university - and by default the entire region - at the forefront of this technology, is promising," said Lowell's mayor, William F. Martin Jr., who was on the 21-member search committee that selected Meehan as one of three finalists last month.
Jack M. Wilson, UMass president, called Meehan Tuesday morning to inform him that he had been selected for the post. The university's board of trustees is expected to ratify Wilson's choice at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Meehan, born and raised in Lowell, plans to leave his position on Capitol Hill in July, ending a career that spawned historic legislation on campaign finance reform and tobacco control.
"The decision to leave the House has been the most difficult professional decision of my life," the seven-term congressman said. "But I believe ultimately that education and a technology-driven, highly literate workforce will determine the fate of my region, the region where I grew up."
Wilson said that throughout the selection process, he repeatedly asked Meehan whether he was sure he wanted to give up his political career for the chancellorship.
"He has never been more passionate about the university than now," Wilson said. "We are very fortunate to have someone with Marty Meehan's talents and expertise and that he is an alum."
Meehan will leave behind a new Democratic majority in Congress, where he recently took over as leader of a key House Armed Services subcommittee.
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