For the second time since 2004, Greer Tan Swiston is taking on Democratic state Representative Kay Khan for the House of Representatives seat Khan has held for almost 20 years.
Both candidates are well known in their district, which covers half of the City of Newton, including the villages of Newton Lower Falls, Auburndale, Waban, West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Corner, and parts of Newton Centre, and they bring stark political differences to the Nov. 6 general election.
Swiston, a Newton alderwoman and a Republican, says that Khan has overlooked fundamental community issues in favor of advocating for mental health care and prisoner rights on the state level. While Swiston believes such issues are important, she says problems with transportation and the economy take precedence.
“I really don’t feel that the fundamentals are being addressed, and we need that first,” she said. “Maybe it’s a personality trait. I think our citizens count on our government having those things taken care of.”
But Khan is adamant that the issues she has focused on are pertinent to her community.
“Mental health is extremely important in Newton and no matter where you live,” she said, citing a statistic that one in five children has problems with mental health. She said she has also worked extensively with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and US Representative Barney Frank to improve Newton’s transportation services.
Swiston comes from an engineering background as an MIT graduate and former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab — the lab that recently landed the rover on Mars. She said the state must be more proactive in finding predictable solutions to problems affecting the job market.
She believes the state needs to develop a more straightforward, predictable growth structure for businesses so they can more easily plan for and overcome obstacles. When more start-ups and large corporations succeed, jobs become available.
“Now we have an environment where there are too many maybes,” she said. “Of course we need to react to the state and the market, but you need to also temper it with a little bit of foresight.”
The Newton resident and real estate agent said this proactive approach to problem-solving can be applied to the city’s transportation issues as well. She pointed out that though Newton is heavily impacted by both the MBTA and Interstate 95, the city has no representation on the state’s Joint Transportation Committee.
The MBTA’s “spotty service” has led to heavy commuter traffic and congestion problems in Newton, said Swiston, who sits on the Aldermen’s Public Safety and Transportation, Zoning and Planning, and Real Property and Reuse committees.
She believes that the state Department of Transportation should look to successful mass transit systems in Washington, D.C., and Switzerland as models to improve service, before spending money on beautifying stations and trains. She also said that if public transportation is made more reliable, it will encourage people out of their cars, thereby unclogging roads and helping the environment. But Newton needs to be involved in these decisions from the start.
“I try to get ahead of situations, rather than waiting to react,” she said.
Khan, who has a background in psychiatric mental health nursing, said transportation is a major issue in Newton, and she does not need to sit on the transportation committee in order to advocate for the city’s needs. She said she is working constantly with MassDOT and fellow western-suburb representatives Alice Peisch and David Linsky to make trains more reliable. She said the major obstacle in improving service is the MBTA’s debt.
“The MBTA is very much in need of more dollars to help with maintenance and the ability to provide more service,” she said. “It’s the Legislature’s number one priority going into the new session.”
Khan has already begun working with Frank’s office on an accessibility plan for the Auburndale commuter rail station, whose steep steps she said are troublesome for the elderly, children, and people with disabilities. She said they should be ready to present a design plan to the community within a few months. She has also brought sound barriers and bridge renovations to Newton.
If elected to her tenth term, the 41-year resident of Lower Falls said she would continue her focus at the state level on mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as the needs of those she represents as the House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities. Khan is also the founder and cochairwoman of the legislative Mental Health Caucus; and founder and cochair of a task force on Women in the Criminal Justice System under the Caucus of Women Legislators. She also worked to pass legislation allowing certified nurse midwives to operate independently of obstetricians’ offices.
In Newton, Khan said two critical issues are the weeds interfering with recreational activities on the Charles River in Auburndale, and the potential redevelopment of the Riverside MBTA station. She said she has begun working with Charles River Canoe and Kayak on the weeds and the MTBA on the Riverside station.
Her work in converting an old railroad bridge into a pedestrian walkway over the Charles in Lower Falls is the first step in her plan to accessibly link Riverside and Lower Falls for pedestrians. This project and cofounding the Newton Cultural Alliance, which includes 24 arts and cultural nonprofits, are ways Khan said she is working to make Newton a more vibrant community overall.
“The idea is to get people out and more actively building audiences at the performances these organizations are putting on,” she said. “When you get people out, you get them into restaurants and shops, so I think it really does help in terms of building the economy.”
Khan cites her extensive experience and “tremendous accomplishments” in Newton and at the state level as her biggest advantages over her opponent. She said she has worked closely with her colleagues at the state Legislature and on the Board of Aldermen, including Swiston, developing relationships that allow her to have an influential voice in decision making.