New blood invigorates Fitchburg mayoral race
Wong, 28, has big visions
FITCHBURG - The steep hills of this old city have long been home to boarded-up Victorians covered with graffiti, shuttered mills that decades ago quit producing paper and jobs, and a murky river where centuries of industrial debris came to rest.
When Lisa Wong drives around, she sees elegant mansions waiting to be restored by young professionals, the future headquarters of engineering and software firms, and a whitewater park that could attract kayakers from around the state.
The candidate for mayor, 28, says she wants to stop the exodus of businesses, jobs, and residents. As she passes Main Street, she points to Café Destare as an example of her vision for the future of Fitchburg: "We're overjoyed at the opening of our first martini bar," she says.
A daughter of Chinese immigrants, Wong became valedictorian of her high school class in North Andover and earned undergraduate and master's degrees from Boston University in three years, then took a job here the year after she graduated, in 2000. Now, as hard times force Fitchburg officials to slash everything from the number of teachers to police department staff, she wants to run this city.
Wong surprised much of the establishment by trouncing her opponents in a four-candidate preliminary election last month, winning nearly 63 percent, about three times the number of votes won by her closest competitor, a veteran city councilor who has lived here most of his life.
If she wins the runoff on Nov. 6, she will become the first minority mayor in the city's 243-year history.
"I see this as an opportunity to shape an old mill town," says Wong, who rose to become executive director of the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority. "I want to see ethnic restaurants thriving in the downtown. This is a very diverse city, and it's becoming more diverse. . . . I see it as my adopted hometown. I feel like I have a lot of ownership of this community."
Stunned by losing to Wong by a 40 percent margin in the primary, City Councilor Thomas Donnelly, who will face her in next month's runoff, has gone on the attack.
The 58-year-old father of five, a real estate developer who has lived in Fitchburg for the past 45 years, calls Wong an interloper, says she lacks sufficient experience, and argues she has exaggerated her credentials and only wants to use the position as a stepping stone to higher office.
Donnelly faces a demographic wave that is changing local politics, with minorities now accounting for 53 percent of students at Fitchburg schools - most of them Hispanic - and two minorities, for the first time in this city's history, sitting on the 11-member City Council.
Wong and Donnelly agree on many of Fitchburg's problems: Revenues aren't growing fast enough to cover the services provided by its $95 million budget.
The crunch forced the sitting mayor, Dan H. Mylott, to lay off the city's nine police dispatchers and cut 36 teaching jobs and 26 other positions in the schools.
An independent audit this year found $41,000 had been stolen from the city treasurer's office. And with Fitchburg losing about 1,100 jobs between 2001 and 2005 - on top of some 7,700 manufacturing jobs shed since the 1960s - the city could become a candidate for state receivership.
"Changing demographics isn't the main issue," said Donnelly, who has served on the City Council for eight years. "We need to stabilize the budget immediately - as soon as the mayor is elected. All this vision of wine bars is very cute, but that's not going to be the salvation of the city."
He compared the city to a patient on life support in need of a heart operation.
"There are two doctors available - one is brand new, right out of Harvard Medical School, who has never performed the operation," he said. "The other is from a less prestigious medical school, but has performed this operation successfully 30 times. Who would you choose?"
Donnelly said Wong has attempted to burnish her resume by exaggerating the size of the budgets she oversaw at the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority and at the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development in Boston, where she served as executive director for a year.
Wong responds that Donnelly is grasping for traction with voters by making up things she never said.
"It's too bad that what's happening is that my opponent is trying to tear me down rather than build himself up," Wong said. "I'm trying to talk about ways we're going to get out of the financial mess; he's saying negative things - and that's what's happened too often in this city."
Robert V. Antonucci, Fitchburg State College president, who has moderated debates between the candidates, described the difference between the candidates' approaches as the difference between an insider and outsider.
"One is a longtime resident and thinks he has the resources here to move the city forward; the other thinks it's time to look at new alternatives and explore new things," he said. "Whoever wins will have the biggest challenge of their lives."
Mary H. Whitney, Fitchburg's first female mayor, who served between 1998 and 2001, said she thinks Wong has benefited from the city's growing diversity.
"It was quite an eye-opener to see how much she won by in the primary," Whitney said. "I'm not sure anyone thought she would win by such a margin."
Wong's message of opening the city to outsiders and infusing new blood into the city's administration resonated with Rick Trickett, 55, an environmental consultant who has lived in Fitchburg for 30 years.
"There have been people in public service for too many years, and they don't seem to have as many good ideas to revitalize downtown and to improve the city's reputation and to bring some life back into this burg," said Trickett, while eating at the City Hall Cafe recently. "With her experience, she's bringing some good ideas to the table. It's time for that."
At the other end of Main Street at the Moran Square Diner, Susan Gariepy, 60, who has lived in the city for 40 years, said Wong is too young for the job. She also does not want any more wine bars in the city.
"I'm supporting Donnelly with my whole heart," she said. "He's a good family man. He's more mature, and he's been doing community service for Fitchburg for many years."
As she campaigned on a recent day, Wong stressed her desire to create opportunities for residents, especially students - 55 percent of whom are considered low income by school officials.
Over the past few months, she says she has knocked on more than 2,000 doors in this city of 40,000 people.
When she walked onto the porch of Mary Ann Troxler's home, she told the waitress that she has been trying to persuade Trader Joe's to open one of its supermarkets in Fitchburg.
She talked about starting culinary programs and blunting the drug activity on her block.
Then, she asked for Troxler's vote.
"I don't want to take anything for granted," she said.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.