Newton hopefuls promise change

Poised to make history, candidates condemn Cohen’s administration

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2009

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As Newton Mayor David Cohen’s 12-year tenure draws to a close, the two candidates vying to replace him are both trying to persuade voters that they represent a sharp change from his increasingly unpopular administration.

Either candidate - state Representative Ruth Balser or Setti Warren, a former aide to Senator John F. Kerry - stands to make history as the first woman or first African-American mayor in this affluent suburb of 83,000. They have largely avoided attacks on each other and instead have set their sights on the current mayor.

This is the city that is building the most expensive high school in the state, where parents’ sky-high aspirations have spawned several private test preparation companies and private Chinese and Russian schools. But, with potholes and other troubles evident here just as elsewhere around the state, the two candidates are delivering a sobering message: Newton is slipping and it is implicitly Cohen’s fault.

“I think people have felt that services have deteriorated,’’ said Balser, seen as a Cohen ally because she once said she was reluctant to run against Cohen. “Certainly our infrastructure has been neglected.’’

Warren is even sharper: “We’ve really had a lack of leadership here in the city, particularly in the last eight to 12 years.’’

Balser and Warren have debated each other more than 30 times, speaking before Newton’s numerous interest groups, associations, and faith organizations, but they haven’t differed much on the issues facing the city.

Both have said they will not call for a property tax increase through an override of the state’s Proposition 2 1/2½ tax-limiting law in their first year in office, but neither has ruled out seeking an override after that. Both have stressed the importance of closing the city’s “structural deficit’’ - a situation in which costs for things such as employee health insurance are going up faster than revenues. And both have said they will bring better management systems to City Hall and restore citizens’ trust in their local government.

Instead of differences on issues, the two differ in style and experience. Balser, 61, who has served a combined 21 years in the state Legislature and on the city’s Board of Aldermen, says only she has the experience to lead the city through change. Warren, 39, worked as deputy state director for Kerry, served overseas in the Iraq war, and held various positions in the Clinton administration, but has never been elected to office. He calls himself the only candidate in the race who can provide a “fresh perspective.’’

Malcolm Salter, the chairman of the Citizen Advisory Group whose April report spurred much of the conversation about the city’s finances and its future, said neither candidate has been specific enough about the financial trade-offs they’re willing to make. The group recommended reducing some services and adding user fees, among other things.

“The problem is, it’s hard for candidates to talk about that in an election because they don’t want to gore somebody’s ox,’’ said Salter, who is remaining neutral in the contest. “Except for realists, you’re bound to lose votes.’’

Health care benefits have been at the front of the financial discussion, and both candidates have talked about saving money by switching city employees to the state health plan. The city could also save by redesigning current plans or by asking employees to pay more toward their health care, but any change would have to be approved by the city’s unions. The head of the teacher’s union has endorsed Balser, and the police and fire unions are backing Warren.

Both candidates said the schools, long the city’s crown jewel, could perform better than they are. Once considered to be among the best in the country, the schools have been outclassed in the minds of some by those in neighboring suburbs. In particular, a vocal segment of parents and advocates has criticized the elementary and middle-school math curriculum as ineffective.

Newton’s mayor sits on the School Committee as a voting member.

“We have not met our full potential in the schools,’’ Warren said, a former class president at Newton North High School. “I believe we need to strive for excellence, and we need to continue to strive for excellence every single year.’’

“I think there is a lot of concern about the increase in class size, the elimination of various programs, and the condition of the buildings, and there is the sense that we can do better,’’ Balser said.

With so little differentiating the candidates on the issues, voters are left to look at the candidates’ backgrounds and personal qualities.

“I think the leadership component is really where people are going to be looking,’’ said R. Lisle Baker, Board of Aldermen president, who hasn’t endorsed either candidate.

Warren is the son of Joseph D. Warren, a onetime close adviser to former governor Michael Dukakis. He has touted his time as the director of the New England region of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but he held that job for only 10 months. Balser has stressed her experience helping Newton residents solve problems as an elected official. She has also worked as a health care manager, but she has never held an executive role in government.

“It’s not like they’ve been mayors before,’’ Salter said. “Ruth has not had any executive experience, and Setti has had extremely limited executive experience. I think both of them are going to have to rely on others to help them manage the city.’’

Both candidates have been running for well over a year. Cohen, whose popularity tumbled as the cost of the new Newton North High School project spiked to nearly $200 million, announced in May 2008 that he wouldn’t seek reelection. At the time, Cohen said he was stepping aside so that he wouldn’t adversely affect a $12 million property tax override, but that measure failed at the polls anyway.

“I would enter this position with a fresh perspective and independent voice because I haven’t held elected office,’’ Warren said. “I haven’t been a part of the old battles.’’

But Balser says only she has the experience.

“I have a really excellent track record of success of bringing about change,’’ Balser said. “I think that will allow me to hit the ground running on day one as the mayor of Newton.’’

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