Newton mayor’s race exposes a deep class divide
NEWTON — It’s a mayoral race with two candidates so alike they once hugged during a debate and congratulated each other on their shared disdain for President Trump.
Scott F. Lennon and Ruthanne Schwartz Fuller are veteran city councilors who have worked together amicably for years. On most issues they agree: The city needs to attract more business, build more affordable housing, and fix its roads.
That all changed last week, after an ad run by Lennon roiled the class tensions that have long simmered in Newton’s neighborhoods.
“I am the only candidate who has continuously held a full-time job for the last twenty years,” read the ad in the Newton Tab. “I am the only candidate who has been a lifelong Democrat and who has lived in Newton my entire life.”
Lennon said he wasn’t trying to take a swipe at Fuller.
“I am just talking about Scott Lennon and my qualifications,” he said in an interview with the Globe.
But the ad drew a clear contrast with Fuller, who was born in Detroit, has donated to both Republican and Democratic candidates, and had the means to stop working full time while she helped raise her three now-adult sons.
“What leadership is not about is hurling political attacks in the last two weeks of the campaign suggesting a woman’s experience counts for less than a man’s,” Fuller, a registered Democrat, said in a statement.
Intentionally or not, Lennon, 47, and Fuller, 59, have come to symbolize the two biggest factions in Newton: the historically working-class north, where Lennon grew up, and the wealthier south, where Fuller has lived for more than 20 years. Even in a city that is far more affluent and progressive than the nation as a whole, inequalities in wealth and opportunity can fuel political divisions.
“I very much get the sense that battle lines are drawn: They are not about local issues or democratic issues, they are very much drawn on this weird issue of class and income,” said Alex Silberman, a 31-year-old West Newton resident who backs Fuller.
The geographic and class divide is demarcated by the Massachusetts Turnpike, which runs through the middle of the city of 13 villages.
The villages north of the Pike, including Lennon’s home in Nonantum, have donated largely to him, while the larger, more spread out sections south of the highway, including Fuller’s Chestnut Hill, is where her strongest supporters reside.
In a preliminary election in September, Fuller won with 5,240 votes, carrying 19 of the city’s 32 precincts. Lennon came in second with 4,692 votes and the backing of nine precincts.
Of Newton’s 24 city councilors, 10 have endorsed Lennon and six are backing Fuller.
Lennon has spoken about how he and his wife both work full time, and his sister lives in Framingham because of the cost of living in Newton. Lennon is assistant budget director at the Middlesex sheriff’s office.
Fuller works as a management consultant and has spent the past several years devoting her time to serving on local boards and as a councilor at large.
Lennon, a graduate of Merrimack College, is the local guy done good, the third generation of his family to live in Newton, where his dad was a firefighter and now his daughter is a student in the public schools.
He has attracted several union endorsements — as well as questions about how tough he will be in contract talks if he is mayor.
Fuller is the policy wonk with degrees from Brown University and Harvard Business School whose kids attended private school. Families are drawn to Newton for its public schools, and some voters wonder how Fuller would grapple with a schools budget with which she doesn’t have a personal history.
Lennon’s home in Nonantum is assessed at about half a million dollars; Fuller’s home in Chestnut Hill is worth more than $4 million.
These differences are meaningful, particularly for candidates so close on local issues, said Dawn Davis, 49, of Newton Centre. She has questions about Fuller’s political history, and is leaning toward Lennon because of his local background and ties to local schools.
“I know who this guy is. There is a trustworthiness. He grew up blue collar. I understand that,” said Davis.
Asked about inspirational figures during a recent debate at Mount Ida College, the two candidates diverged.
Lennon pointed to two major guides in his life: the late state auditor and fellow Nonantum native Joseph DeNucci, and Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. Lennon worked for DeNucci earlier in his career, and Koutoujian is his current boss.
DeNucci, who was a Golden Gloves boxer-turned-state representative before becoming auditor, “was not your typical manager, but he worked hard worrying about people, and how government affects them,” Lennon said.
And Koutoujian, himself a former state representative, “has taught me to be a really good listener,” Lennon said.
At the same debate, Fuller pointed to Otto Eckstein, the cofounder of economic forecasting firm Data Resources Inc., and a Harvard University professor and an economic adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson. As a boy, Eckstein fled Nazi Germany with his family and settled in the United States, The New York Times reported in his obituary.
Eckstein hired Fuller to join Data Resources when she was just out of college, she said, and showed her how to be a caring manager.
“He was an entrepreneur, he thought big, he was inclusive, he set a really positive culture” at Data Resources, Fuller said. “He had a big brain, but a big heart. He cared about people.”
But these debates over personal backgrounds mask the real concerns of voters, many of whom face increasing costs to stay in Newton, as development pushes up the value of real estate, said Silberman, who has lived in Newton five years with his family.
“People are genuinely nervous. They feel they are being priced out of town,” Silberman said.
Lisa Rucinski, 58, of Newton Lower Falls, who is undecided in the race, said she finds herself weighed down by whether a candidate’s perspective counts.
“Can someone represent my interests if they don’t share my identity? If they come from a different background?” asked Rucinski. “Is that important when looking at candidates for mayor to run our city?”
She noted the last time the city had a race for a mayor — in 2009, when Setti Warren defeated state Representative Ruth Balser — the city wasn’t divided over the candidates.
This time around, the race appears to reflect a break among residents.
“I’m just really sad the mayoral race has ended up mirroring a divide that exists in our city that we seldom talk about openly,” Rucinski said.