Mayor’s challenge comes with spin

College student is last rival standing

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / October 30, 2011

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It has been a sleepy fall in the race for mayor of Waltham, with few campaign signs staked in front yards, and even fewer official campaign events.

As potential contenders fell away early on, just two candidates remain: The current mayor, Jeannette McCarthy, a lawyer and former city councilor who has held the job for nearly eight years; and Andrew Wirth, a 22-year-old college student and Margaritas waiter best known for apparently setting a world record by spinning a book on his finger for more than 40 minutes.

When McCarthy, 58, took office in 2004, she too made history - as the city’s first female mayor. But her relationships inside City Hall, where the long hallway to her corner office is lined with portraits of her male predecessors, have sometimes been contentious. She clashed with city councilors and had few allies among the 15-member panel.

And yet, as McCarthy seeks a third term in office, none of the councilors are challenging her. She has been very popular with voters, winning 82 percent of the ballots cast in her last election.

“It would be a tough race,’’ said City Councilor Thomas J. Curtin. “Would you really want to do that if the general perception is that she cannot be beat? A lot of people feel that.’’

City Councilor Thomas Stanley, who also serves as a state representative, considered running for mayor this year, but decided against it when McCarthy, who had earlier said she would leave office after two terms, announced she was running for reelection. In her first race for mayor in 2003, McCarthy beat Stanley by a large margin.

City Council president Paul Brasco had also announced he would run for mayor, but he dropped out of the race earlier this year.

So that leaves Wirth, who is studying business at Massachusetts Bay Community College. One of his early campaign events was at the Skellig, a pub where he spun a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records on his finger for 40 minutes and 8 seconds - and now hopes his name will appear in the book’s next edition for breaking the old record.

Wirth started spinning trays on one finger during slow spells while he waited tables, he said. He got good at it, and decided to challenge the book-spinning record.

“Not that I’m just some guy that spins,’’ said Wirth, who is from Hayward, Calif. He has long been interested in politics, he said, and decided to run against McCarthy because she had no opponent.

“I thought democracy only works when more than one candidate is running,’’ he said.

Wirth’s main political experience was volunteering on a city councilor’s campaign in Hayward. He has also done volunteer work in California and Waltham, and spent time during this campaign knocking on doors and talking to voters.

People who spoke to him cited their concerns about the city’s traffic problems, and the deteriorating condition of its streets and sidewalks, he said. Parking near the Moody Street restaurants is difficult, especially on weekend nights, and an inexpensive change - more-visible signs for parking lots - would ease the problem, he said.

McCarthy has nothing unkind to say about her opponent, though she repeatedly calls him a “kid.’’ She said that while he wants to start his political career by running for mayor, she started by first winning seats on the School Committee and the City Council. The two candidates have not met formally.

McCarthy graduated from Waltham High School in 1971 and has lived in Waltham her entire life, even as she commuted to Boston College, where she graduated with a degree in biology; Suffolk University Law School; and Northeastern University, where she earned a master’s degree in criminal justice.

She now lives with her parents, who are in their 80s. She is their only child left; both her brother and sister have died.

McCarthy isn’t saying whether this would be her last bid for mayor.

“My campaign said, ‘Don’t say that again,’ ’’ she said.

She decided to run for reelection, McCarthy said, because she wanted to continue to work on some of the city’s larger projects, especially the reuse of the 200-acre Fernald School property and the redevelopment of 119 acres that once belonged to Polaroid. She said she’s also passionate about improving the city’s old sewers, streets, and water pipes.

McCarthy is deeply connected to her city, and even politicians who don’t always agree with her say they have no doubt that she does what she thinks is best for Waltham.

She shows up at a multitude of events across Waltham; nothing seems too small.

“She can go from greeting and chatting with people in the neighborhood to negotiating with developers,’’ said City Councilor Sarafina “Sally’’ Collura.

City Councilor Kathleen McMenimen was at an AARP event with McCarthy last week when she listened as two people talked to the mayor about how she served dessert at a recent church event.

But not all city councilors have always agreed with McCarthy’s decisions or her handling of the major’s job.

“Her management style can be confrontational, unnecessarily,’’ Stanley said. “In that regard, I think a different approach is better.’’

McCarthy’s relationship with the City Council has sometimes been discordant, though some councilors say both the mayor and the council have softened a bit during the last few years.

“In the beginning it was more of a divide-and-conquer type of attitude,’’ Stanley said. “ ‘If you’re not cheerleading me, you’re against me.’ I think I’ve seen that dissipate a bit.’’

Still, no one doubts that McCarthy will win a third term.

“The mayor is just a kid from Waltham,’’ said Peter Koutoujian, Middlesex County sheriff and a former state legislator from Waltham, who endorses McCarthy. “And that’s what I think a lot of people like about her.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

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