Business

Shirley Leung

Newton’s boring mayor’s race just got a lot more interesting

Newton City Councilor Ruthanne Schwartz Fuller and City Council President Scott Lennon.
Handout photos
Newton City Councilor Ruthanne Schwartz Fuller and City Council President Scott Lennon.

As mayoral races go, this one was really boring. Until one candidate tried to stir up a little class antipathy, and instead started a gender war.

Now a tepid contest in Newton between two Democrats who don’t differ much on the issues has some heat. I might actually look for the results come election night, and I don’t even live there.

The fireworks started this week when City Council President Scott Lennon took out an ad in the local paper, declaring: “I am the only candidate who has continuously held a full-time job for the last twenty years.”

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Lennon says he was trying to highlight his experience as a civil servant managing multimillion-dollar budgets for government agencies, but he might as well have said stay-at-home moms need not apply to be mayor of Newton. His opponent is City Councilor Ruthanne Fuller, who chose to work full time only for a short period while raising her sons.

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“Sadly, my opponent has decided to undervalue my thirty years of experience,” Fuller wrote in a response on the community blog Village 14. “He suggests I am less qualified to be Mayor because, like many other women, I’ve had a mix of full-time, part-time and unpaid work experience, all while raising my three children.”

At this point, Lennon could have apologized, changed his choice of words, and moved on. But he decided to double down, writing in his own response on Village 14 that his ad “has been taken out of context.” Lennon explained that he respects working families, especially stay-at-home moms, because he was raised by one.

If that response felt apropos of nothing, it was lost on Lennon. On Thursday, he continued to defend his ad and then went on to accuse Fuller of playing politics (which is odd, given it’s a political campaign).

“My opponent talks about her work experience. I don’t know what it is,” he said. “To come back and twist this about the working moms, I am saddened by this.”

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The episode is playing out in a supercharged moment in which gender and power are top of mind from the White House (Donald Trump) to Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein).

Add the instant communication brought by social media, and a wrong step — even one in a local mayoral election — is quickly amplified.

It needs to be said, too, that Fuller is no slacker. She has two Ivy League degrees — one from Brown, the other from Harvard Business School. She worked full time as a management consultant until her twins were born in 1987, and then she became a stay-at-home mom.

After a couple of years, she took a paid position at WGBH (long before I began appearing on the station) to develop a strategic plan, alternating between part-time and full-time work. After a decade at WGBH, she became a full-time nonprofit volunteer and community activist, including a stint as vice chair of Newton’s Citizen’s Advisory Group. Appointed to the post in 2008, Fuller said she worked full time on a plan to fix the city’s structural deficit after the global financial crisis; the group’s recommendations formed the blueprint of Mayor Setti Warren’s fiscal reforms. It was Warren’s decision to run for governor that left the mayor’s office open.

Not everyone can afford to stay at home full time, but Fuller could and chose to.

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“For me, it’s always been about balancing work, family, and community service. I’ve had different points of my life where I needed that flexibility to emphasize one or the other,” she said in an interview. “You can make a difference in a lot of different roles. There isn’t one right way to become effective, to be a leader, to manage and shape the world around us.”

Lennon and Fuller are locked in what many believe will be a tight race. Lennon said he took out the ad in the Newton TAB to address a nagging question he kept hearing on the campaign trail: “What’s the difference between you and your opponent?”

While there isn’t a lot of distance between them on city issues, their similarities stop when you get to their backgrounds. Lennon may not have intended to offend stay-at-home moms everywhere, but he certainly poked the other elephant on the campaign trail: longstanding class tensions in a city divided by the Mass Pike.

He’s from the “north” side, the village of Nonantum, which is proud of its working-class roots. She lives on the “south” side in the wealthy enclave of Chestnut Hill.

He’s the son of a Newton firefighter who has to work for a living; she’s the woman who can afford not to work.

Ted Hess-Mahan, another city councilor, called both candidates “good people” and had planned to stay neutral, but he’s so upset about the ad he is now throwing his support behind Fuller.

“Scott took a cheap shot,” he said. “I think he lost the character debate on this.”

City councilor Amy Sangiolo, who finished third in the mayoral preliminary election and has endorsed Lennon, called his ad “a poor choice of words but anyone who knows him or has worked with him — especially Ruthanne — knows that he would never put down stay-at-home moms.”

Sangiolo, who describes herself as a stay-at-home mom, said Fuller’s response was “over the top” and that she should have just focused on her experience and qualifications.

Greg Reibman, president of Newton-Needham Regional Chamber and one of the bloggers and cofounders of Village 14, wonders if this gaffe might cost Lennon the election.

That might be too harsh of an assessment, but this much is clear: Calling into question the experience that comes with raising a family is just bad politics.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.