With his reelection campaign underway, Mayor Setti Warren of Newton stunned some of his supporters and gave grist to his opponents when he came out against funding a housing program for homeless people in Waban, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The popular first-term Democrat has shown a deft ability to control his image and promote his agenda, settling contracts with unions, crafting a long-range capital improvement plan for the city, and winning support for recent tax overrides.
But Warren gave fuel to his opposition when he weighed in on the project a week ahead of schedule, halting public debate, angering Newton residents on both sides, and leaving himself open for potential mayoral challenger Ted Hess-Mahan to turn the controversy into a campaign issue.
“I can understand how he might think that by avoiding this discussion, it’s politically beneficial to him,” said Hess-Mahan, former president of Newton nonprofit affordable-housing developer CAN-DO and the current Ward 3 alderman at large. “But I think in the long run, it’s going to come back to bite him.”
Two days after the mayor’s June 25 announcement that he would not support granting $1.4 million in federal funds controlled by the city to the housing project, Hess-Mahan sent out a press release calling for Warren to reverse his decision.
“I think it was a mistake to cut it short,” said Alderman at Large Brian Yates, who represents Waban and helped to organize public meetings on the project, called Engine 6. “When you’re halfway through the divisiveness, you need to come to some conclusion.”
But Warren said he has made the reason for his announcement crystal clear, that the city needs more time to fully consider the issue, and he denied it had anything to do with politics.
“This is too important of a conversation for our community to have it rushed in a two-week period,” he said. “We cannot return to the poisonous back and forth and dysfunction in government that was in place before I took office. . . . We have to as a community put our politics aside and be able to really lead a discussion, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
Engine 6 proposed to turn the historic firehouse on Beacon Street into affordable-housing units for nine formerly homeless people and a live-in staff member. The developer requested nearly $1.4 million in federal funds managed by the city to move forward, and the Newton Housing Partnership and the city’s Planning and Development Board voted to grant the money. The recommendation was set to go before Warren last Tuesday after a public comment period.
But many residents in Waban raised a hue and cry, saying the Engine 6 tenants could endanger their children. Warren’s announcement curtailed public comments early, and a public meeting scheduled for June 27 was canceled.
The developers have vowed to press forward with their proposal, and Warren said he would consider the project again later, after the city has had more time to talk it through.
“What I’m actually doing is expanding the amount of time we can have a constructive dialogue,” Warren said.
He said he is having staff look into how to lengthen all public comment processes for project proposals in the future. And he emphasized that he is committed to affordable housing in Newton. According to Candace Havens, the city’s director of planning and development, 31 units of affordable housing have been approved in Newton since January of 2010, and the city has assisted six homebuyers in purchasing their first homes.
Some say the mayor made the right call on the Waban project.
“It definitely wasn’t a political decision,” said Alderman John Rice, who represents Waban and helped to organize Engine 6 meetings. The mayor, he said, acted in the best interest of the city.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I think if there was more time it may have been different. People felt like they had two weeks to give input before the mayor made a $1.4 million decision that would affect a lot of people.”
Still, Warren’s announcement caught many of his supporters off guard, and some who say they voted easily for him in 2009 now say they have some thinking to do before the election in November.
“I was a supporter and offered to work on his campaign before he was even a candidate,” said Andrea Kelley, a founding member of the Newton Housing Partnership and former president of the League of Women Voters of Newton. She said the project could have been a chance for Warren to show strong leadership, but may now become a platform for Hess-Mahan.
“I still support his earlier visions and his goal for the city,” she said. Still, she likes Hess-Mahan, too. “I wouldn’t be comfortable coming out and saying which one I support for mayor,” Kelley said.
Nearly 70 residents have joined The Supporters of Engine 6, said Waban resident Elizabeth Baum, a spokeswoman for the group. She said people are angry the public process was halted and feel Warren capitulated to an angry minority.
“Maybe he is supportive of affordable housing, but apparently it’s a limited type of affordable housing,” Baum said. “Obviously, this project became too controversial for him to back it up.”
Baum said she voted for Warren in 2009, but now is not sure who she will vote for this year.
As of Friday morning, four people, including Warren and Hess-Mahan, have pulled papers to run for mayor, said the city clerk.
The other two candidates are Tom Sheff, vice president of a nonprofit who has unsuccessfully run for several political offices, including mayor in 2005, and Jacqueline Gauvreau Sequeira, a political activist and a whistle-blower in the priest sexual abuse scandal who has never held office.
Potential challengers have until July 30 to return papers with 400 signatures.
Both Sheff and Gauvreau Sequeira said they are unhappy with the timing of the mayor’s announcement. Warren weighed in too early, they said.
Observers said that even if Engine 6 causes Warren some grief between now and November, it probably will not be a decisive issue in the mayoral election.
“It was uncharacteristic of what we’ve come to expect from Setti Warren,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. “It did seem to be kind of sudden, and the mayor’s generally not operated that way.”
But Reibman, who noted the chamber has not taken a position on the Engine 6, does not think the controversy will affect Warren’s reelection chances.
“I still don’t think in any way that Setti Warren doesn’t get elected in November,” he said. “He’s a very popular mayor, and he’s done a lot to deserve reelection.,”
Gerry Chervinsky, a pollster, Newton resident, and political activist, agreed that while Warren may be accused of failing to deliver on affordable housing, “this alone isn’t going to bring down the mayor.”
Warren was in an impossible position with Engine 6, and the 30-day comment period was simply not long enough to ensure that Engine 6 had been properly vetted, said Chervinsky, who said he is currently unaligned in the mayoral race.
“It’s going to be Warren and Hess-Mahan [in the general election],’’ Chervinsky said. “Yeah, it’s Hess-Mahan’s issue. The issue for Warren is what he’s going to win by; if he wins 51 to 49, that won’t look good.”