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Tested by crisis, Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller seeks a second term

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who was sworn into office January 1, 2018, is mounting a re-election campaign for a second term.  She is the city's 31st mayor and first woman to hold the office.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who was sworn into office January 1, 2018, is mounting a re-election campaign for a second term. She is the city's 31st mayor and first woman to hold the office.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller will seek reelection this year facing a set of challenges unimaginable four years ago: a pandemic, an economic crisis, and calls to end systemic racism in law enforcement and society.

For Fuller, who describes herself as “body and soul committed” to helping Newton through this time, those challenges are all the more reason to ask voters for a second term.

“We are in a remarkably difficult period,” Fuller said in an interview. “It’s not easy, but I’m not jumping ship in the midst of this crisis. I’m here to work with everyone, and see us through this.”

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Newton resident Al Cecchinelli, who previously ran for mayor in 2017, is contemplating a run this year, he told the Globe in an e-mail. He is the only prospective challenger so far to publicly show interest in the mayoral race. He is concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on signature gathering and campaigning, he said.

The city’s mayoral election is scheduled for Nov. 2. Nomination papers will be available May 1, according to City Clerk David Olson.

Fuller still carries the responsibilities that came with the job she was elected to in 2017, but her role has grown in response to the coronavirus crisis.

She has been involved with building new programs to buoy businesses and residents who have suffered economically, and with efforts to reorganize schools to operate safely. As the state ramps up the administration of vaccines, Fuller has pledged to keep residents informed, while the city’s health department expects to launch a website focused on vaccine distribution information.

She also has launched a sweeping effort to eliminate systemic racism in city government, including the police force.

The Rev. Devlin Scott, pastor of NewCity Church, said political leaders like Fuller are facing an unprecedented challenge posed by the combination of the pandemic, societal change, and economic issues.

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“Any leader facing all of those things is facing a level of difficulty unlike any other leaders we’ve seen, at least in my lifetime,” said Scott. “She has handled this extremely well.”

This month, Fuller also had to respond to the fatal police shooting of a 28-year-old resident who officials have said was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Fuller, a former Ward 7 councilor-at-large, made history when she became the first woman to serve as Newton’s chief executive after she was elected the city’s 31st mayor in 2017.

As mayor, Fuller said her accomplishments include implementing full-day kindergarten and opening the new Cabot Elementary School; finding a path forward on an updated Senior Center; delivering the city’s climate action plan; and the eminent domain taking of Webster Woods from Boston College. The city’s finances, she said, have been built strong enough to weather the pandemic’s economic impact.

As the year’s crises unfolded, elected officials had to pivot to respond. No mayor had a playbook for navigating so many emergencies at once, she said. But Fuller was not working alone.

“I largely feel deep gratitude for the people here in Newton who every day are digging deep and finding a way to ... help each other through this,” Fuller said.

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Susan Albright, the City Council president, praised Fuller’s leadership throughout her term. On longstanding issues facing the city, such as housing and roadway improvements, the mayor has continued to make progress, Albright said.

“She absolutely has a handle on what the problems are in the city” and how to address them, Albright said. “She is pointing the city in the right direction.”

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, praised Fuller’s management of the city. But while she has tried to be helpful to business, Reibman said the chamber has sometimes been disappointed that Newton has moved more slowly than other communities with relief initiatives for restaurants and small retailers.

“She is generally pretty conservative, and is not one of those municipal leaders who chooses to be up front on new initiatives,” Reibman said.

Liz Mirabile, chairwoman of the Newton Lower Falls Improvement Association’s Riverside Committee, said that during discussions over Mark Development’s mixed-use development at the Riverside MBTA station, Fuller did not support neighbors who raised concerns over traffic and the size of buildings.

“She listened to us, but she did not advocate for us, or work with us in any way to lessen the impact” of the project, Mirabile said.

Instead, Ward 4 city councilors advocated on their behalf, and the developer also proactively worked with neighbors and provided updated information on the project, Mirabile said.

Fuller, who has excellent “people skills,” could make a difference going forward by being an advocate for those impacted by development, Mirabile said.

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Doris Ann Sweet, a member of Engine 6, which advocates for affordable housing in Newton, praised the mayor’s outreach efforts during visioning efforts along major corridors, like Washington and Needham streets. Fuller also has worked to create new affordable housing and joined a coalition of mayors to help address the issue.

Fuller, when speaking with residents one-on-one, is focused on listening to their opinions, Sweet said. During demonstrations in Newton against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May, Sweet said she saw Fuller out on the streets, talking to people and hearing what they had to say.

“She’s genuine, and she’s listening,” Sweet said. “She’s responding, I think, from the heart.”

Fuller recently caught up in her City Hall office with Newton resident Robert Solomon, who worked on her first campaign.
Fuller recently caught up in her City Hall office with Newton resident Robert Solomon, who worked on her first campaign.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Some wish there was more outreach. In Newton, planning for the reopening of schools was hampered by an increasingly bitter debate. Many teachers were concerned for their safety, while parents were divided on how best to bring students back into classrooms.

Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said progress on addressing teachers’ concerns — particularly ventilation improvements and COVID-19 surveillance testing — has been slow.

“I wish someone had tried to take a leadership role on this, yes, and I think that role would have naturally fallen to her,” Zilles said. “It would be great if she reached out to me and said, ‘Mike, I hear that you still have concerns. What can we do together to alleviate those?’”

Fuller said she is working to allow in-person education to move forward. She pointed to efforts including investing in ventilation systems, as well as surveillance testing for educators and staff, which began in December.

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“I will continue to do everything I can, working with our educators, our parents, and our community, to support our education system in this difficult period,” Fuller said.

Scott, with NewCity Church, said Fuller is not afraid of facing difficult issues head-on.

During the summer, Scott hosted a Hope is Rising concert that included a panel discussion with Fuller, Black community leaders, and a representative from the Newton Police Department to discuss racial equity and other issues.

Fuller declared systemic racism is real, Scott recalled, and that she would work to eliminate it as mayor.

“She listened to the people around her and the people in the community, whose voices matter,” Scott said. “That is political courage, especially in this day and age.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.