Mayor keeps his hand in wider circles

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/file
Newton Mayor Setti Warren

A week after Newton Mayor Setti Warren dropped his bid to run for US Senate last fall, he was at the Boston Marriott Quincy hotel, mingling with union leaders and speaking at the AFL-CIO’s state conference.

In early December, he served as the keynote speaker at a Massachusetts Teachers Association minority training event in Framingham.

And just before the New Hampshire presidential primary in January, Warren drove to Derry on behalf of the Democratic National Committee to rebut Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. He continued his push against Romney last week ahead of the Massachusetts primary, slamming the former governor’s economic record during a conference call with reporters.


Warren may have sidelined his ambitions for the Senate, but he has continued to keep up his political profile, fueling speculation that he continues to aim for higher office.

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A Globe review of Warren’s schedule from October through the middle of last month found that the mayor had sprinkled about 20 activities into his calendar that gave him a platform to a broader audience. Half of the events were outside Newton.

In January, after Warren went to Springfield to deliver the keynote address for the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, the Newton TAB blog asked: “Setti for (Fill in Political Office) watch: What’s he going to do?’’

Warren said he has gone to speak where he has been invited, including the Springfield engagement and the teacher’s association event, both of which highlighted his experience as the first voter-elected black mayor in Massachusetts.

Only six events during the period were purely political, such as speaking in New Hampshire and at Democratic Party fund-raisers, Warren said.


Warren said his attention is on Newton: “I’m the mayor. This is where my focus has been.’’

Warren pointed out that since he dropped out of the Senate race, he completed negotiations with the city’s unions to cap the growth of employee benefits and compensation, presented a capital improvement plan that for the first time prioritized the city’s infrastructure needs, and helped develop partnerships, including one with Boston College, to bring more technology to city schools. Not to mention the series of community meetings he has held around Newton.

Still, Warren, who is 41 and halfway through his first term in office, said he hasn’t made a decision yet about whether he will run for reelection.

When he decided to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Senate last year, Warren was criticized by some Newton residents for pursuing higher office without finishing his first term as mayor, using the position as a stepping stone. Some residents also questioned his commitment to Newton issues while zigzagging across the state.

He dropped his bid to challenge Republican US Senator Scott Brown in late September after he was financially outgunned by Elizabeth Warren, a former adviser to President Obama who was able to quickly raise millions of dollars upon entering the Democratic field.


The mayor ended his campaign $136,000 in debt, but he has since reduced that amount with some help from US Senator John Kerry, his former boss, who hosted a fund-raising breakfast in Boston in November.

‘I’m the mayor. This is where my focus has been.’

Setti Warren Newton’s mayor (above), responding to criticism of political activities that have drawn him outside the city

According to the latest financial reports, covering the period through the end of December, Warren’s campaign was $86,791 in the red, and had $7,353 cash on hand.

His mayoral campaign, which is separate, had $5,000 of debt and $4,479 in cash.

Since dropping out of the race, the mayor has attended several political events with Elizabeth Warren, including fund-raisers in Newton and elsewhere.

The number of networking-type events Warren has attended as mayor is unusual, according to his predecessor, David Cohen.

“I spent almost all my time in Newton and attending Newton events,’’ Cohen said. “The out-of-town events were directly related to Newton issues. I did no out-of-city networking and ceremonial events.’’

When he traveled to other cities, it was for meetings with state legislators to lobby for money, or to talk with other mayors about municipal issues, said Cohen.

But unlike Cohen and previous Newton mayors, who held the position at the culmination of their political careers, Warren is new to elected office.

Cohen was a state legislator before running for mayor in 1997. He served for three terms until, faced with political pressure over the skyrocketing costs of the new Newton North High School, he decided against running for reelection.

His predecessor, Thomas B. Concannon Jr., was a member of the Board of Aldermen before becoming mayor. Before Concannon, Theodore Mann had served as mayor for more than two decades, and died in office.

Newton politicians said they wouldn’t be surprised if Warren has higher political aspirations.

“When you’re young and you’ve been successful when the wind is blowing in your face . . . of course other people are going to notice you,’’ said Matt Hills, the School Committee’s vice chairman. He also noted the mayor has successfully juggled his commitment to Newton with other activities.

Even when he was running for Senate, Warren was accessible and attended all the meetings related to teacher contract negotiations, Hills said.

“If he’s driving the right policies, tackling the budget, making significant progress in putting together a five-year capital plan,’’ Hills said, “then he could spend his time on Cisco Beach in Nantucket. It’s better than being here 24 hours a day but making the wrong decision.’’

Warren’s leadership seems to have caught the attention of party activists. State and national Democratic officials have called on Warren on several occasions recently to speak out on behalf of the president’s reelection campaign and economic policies.

“The mayor is one of the rising stars of the Massachusetts Democratic Party,’’ said Kevin Franck, a party spokesman.

Newton politicians say despite Warren’s recent high-profile events, they have noticed that the mayor is much more active in city issues since he abandoned his run for Senate.

“I see him more focused on the city of Newton,’’ said Sydra Schnipper, a former alderwoman who represented Ward 7.

Shirley Spinetta, owner of the Tango Mango restaurant in Newton Centre, said she was upset about Warren running for Senate because she felt like he was “jumping ship.’’

But Spinetta, who recently received an invitation from the mayor’s office to participate in a round-table discussion about how to improve Newton Centre, said she senses that Warren is trying to make an effort to be more involved in local affairs.

“They’re baby steps, but steps are good,” she said. “I think he’s sort of digging his hands in the community.”

However, other business owners say Warren still has some work to do in mending community concerns about his political aspirations.

John Stavros, the owner of Bigelow Professional Dry Cleaners & Tailors, said other mayors, including Mann, stopped into his shop just to chat. He hasn’t seen Warren walking around Newton Centre, Stavros said, adding, “I think that’s important.”

Warren said he will continue to accept out-of-town invitations to speak on Obama’s behalf.

“I’m supporting the president because I know the president is committed to what we’re doing here in Newton,’’ Warren said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.