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OPINION

Bare knuckles Newton: How a political ambush was revealed

Councilor Emily Norton goes after Ward 3 candidate Jim Cote for being . . . a Republican.

Emily Norton, left, and James Cote.
Emily Norton, left, and James Cote.Handout

A harsh, anonymous, last-minute campaign flier targets a local candidate. A city councilor is caught on video distributing it. A phony political group is created to deceive voters.

Welcome to politics in Newton, known as the Garden City — an increasingly appropriate moniker, considering all the manure in its recent elections.

A series of bizarre incidents unfolded just before Election Day, capping off a highly contentious campaign season that some city officials said was the nastiest in recent memory.

On one level, it’s a story about the national political passions filtering down to the local level, with officials whose job involves city budgets and street lighting suddenly forced to answer for national political controversies. It’s also a story about tactics reminiscent of national politics cropping up in what might otherwise be low-key local disputes — in Newton’s case, over zoning.

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Caught in the middle of both trends was Jim Cote, who unsuccessfully ran for the Ward 3 seat on the Newton City Council. Cote is a registered Republican, though local elections in Newton are nonpartisan. Cote, who had been elected to the council previously, has never hidden his political affiliation. But in mysterious last-minute campaign literature, he was accused of being a Trump Republican, a characterization he staunchly denies.

The Saturday before the election, some Ward 3 residents received an e-mail with the subject line “Newton Trump Republicans For Jim Cote!” The e-mail led with a picture of Trump with the phrase “Vote for Jim!” superimposed. Sent by a group called Newton GOP WARD 3, it urged voters to “stand with Newton’s only Republican city council candidate” and to “Help Jim Cote Make Newton Great Again!” It listed a few of Cote’s purportedly conservative bona fides: He’s against Newton sanctuary city status and he is a favorite with state GOP leaders. Some of Cote’s old tweets were included, such as a 2018 photo of Cote with Geoff Diehl.

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The problem is that the group Newton GOP WARD 3 doesn’t exist; in fact, the fake group listed a local cemetery as its address in the e-mail. By lumping Cote with Trump, the e-mail was obviously an effort to harm, not help, his candidacy.

Then, on Sunday, printed fliers with the same type of messaging — labeling Cote a Trump Republican — were dropped off at some residents’ homes. They had no sponsor listed, which raises legal questions about the flier under campaign finance laws. “Everybody kept texting me the fliers,” Cote told me in an interview. “They were all over West Newton.” The fliers, which also cited some of Cote’s past tweets, urged voters to reject “Trump Republicans on the Newton City Council” and to “vote for Julie Malakie,” Cote’s opponent and the incumbent.

“In Newton, if you call someone a Trump Republican, it’s serious,” Cote said. “The funny part is the Newton Republicans have completely disowned me.” (Cote said he’s never voted for Trump.)

A day before the election, Cote attempted to set the record straight on Facebook and asked people for any door-camera footage to identify who was behind the effort. A resident responded, sharing video of the flier being delivered to his home — by someone who looked just like Emily Norton, the Ward 2 councilor and a well-known environmental advocate who heads the Charles River Watershed Association. Village 14, a local blog, first reported these seemingly related efforts to taint Cote’s candidacy in a post under the irresistible headline: “Dirty tricks, a cemetery, a Nest video, and a City Councilor.”

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“This isn’t even my opponent,” Cote said in reference to Norton. (His actual opponent, Malakie, distanced herself from both efforts.)

In an interview, Norton confirmed she was the person in the video, but denied involvement with the e-mail. “What [the e-mail authors] did was very different, making up an organization saying it’s from the cemetery,” she said. “I was out there with my face handing this to people in person.” Norton said she made the pamphlet on her own. “I was getting worried that [Cote] was going to beat [Malakie] and I started looking at his Twitter feed,” Norton said. “And I was like, ‘There are some really conservative statements here.’ ”

Those tweets, Norton said, are fair game. Of course they are. They are also already public and known. And the posts in question are not exactly connected to any local policy dispute. Cote’s tweets are certainly reflective of Republican ideology, but they’re not Trump bombs. “I’ve known Emily since 2013,” Cote said. It’s absurd “for her to say she’s just had a revelation; she always knew that I was a Republican, so you know she’d have paid particular attention to anything I said.”

Norton painted an innocent picture: She said she was just trying to inform voters of Cote’s tweets. “If we’ve learned anything from the Trump years, it is you have to battle that attitude at every level, and Donald Trump and his supporters are trying to take down our democracy,” Norton said. “That is a nonstarter for me. . . . If you’re going to be Trumpy, I’m going to tell the world that you’re Trumpy.”

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Of course, one of our democracy’s safeguards against those who would take it down are campaign-finance laws. A spokesperson for the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance declined to comment on this specific case. Generally speaking, he said, the office is concerned with disclosure, and that communications sent to a community generally require, by law, disclosure on campaign finance reports. A legal review of any specific incident would be triggered by complaints, the spokesperson said.

At this point you might be wondering, why all this drama for a ward council seat? With apologies to Sir Isaac, Newton’s first law these days is: Whatever the conflict is supposedly about, it’s probably really about housing and zoning reform.

Cote believes he was targeted by Norton, who is aligned with the council’s housing skeptics, because his presence in the council would have been key “to supporting more low-income and affordable housing.” It’s why local progressive groups such as Vibrant Newton and Engine 6 endorsed Cote, the registered Republican. “The council is heavily divided on zoning reform,” Cote said. “I considered myself as a good bridge between all these warring parties.”

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But he won’t get that chance. A moderate was ambushed for not being someone’s version of a true believer along national political lines. Doesn’t that feel … Trumpy?


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.