NEWTON — With just over a week to go before the general election, Newton Mayor Setti Warren and challenger Ted Hess-Mahan say they plan to keep hosting parties, appearing on doorsteps, and making phone call after phone call as each tries to persuade voters to choose him as mayor.
“I’ve had great conversations about the city’s future, I feel very good about where we’re going and what we’re doing,” said Warren, who is running for a second term. “We’re going to continue to do what we have been doing for the last several weeks, which is canvassing, knocking on doors, doing visibilities. I’ll be reaching out to residents and voters all across the city.”
Hess-Mahan, a longtime alderman and a practicing lawyer, said he has been working at a breakneck pace to get his message out, but will intensify his campaigning as Nov. 5 draws near.
“I’ve got to ratchet it up,” said Hess-Mahan, who said he has been doing mailings, blast e-mails, meet-and-greets, and house parties nearly every night. “I’ve been going to as many events as I can. There’s only one of me, and a certain amount of time.”
The candidates’ campaign finance reports are due to the state Monday; reports filed before the preliminary election showed Warren with a wide lead over HessMahan, raising $17,329 between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, compared with his challenger’s $5,340 in the same period. Hess-Mahan said that since Aug. 31, he has raised about $6,300.
Warren won 69 percent of the vote in the preliminary on Sept. 17; Hess-Mahan finished second with 22 percent.
The two candidates faced off Tuesday in their first one-on-one debate of the campaign, sparring over staff turnover in City Hall, unfunded retiree benefit liabilities, and affordable housing.
Warren championed his work creating a capital plan for the city and eliminating the budget deficit, while HessMahan, who has been a member of the Board of Aldermen for the last 10 years, emphasized his experience as an advocate for the homeless and people with disabilities.
“When I decided to run for mayor back in 2009, it was clear that our city was not living up to its full potential,” said Warren. “In four short years, I worked in a collaborative way with our unions, our employees, to ensure that we had a long-term, sustainable financial plan for our city. . . . We need to continue what we started.”
But Hess-Mahan, who supported Warren in his run four years ago, said he had major concerns about how the city is being managed.
“Why am I running, and why does Newton need a new mayor?” asked Hess-Mahan. “Briefly, $600 million in unfunded liabilities . . . an administration that prides itself on openness and transparency but didn’t exercise either on Engine 6 or the Austin Street project; an administration that claims efficiency but has a problem with senior management.”
Hess-Mahan said he believes the biggest issue facing the city is the $600 million in unfunded postemployment benefits. When Warren took office, Hess-Mahan said, the liability was at $532 million. He said the city should phase in changes to health plans, such as prorating benefits based on years of service and tightening eligibility requirements.
But Warren said that his administration has taken steps to address the liability, which in 2011, when he settled contracts with all the city’s unions, had swelled to $640 million.
Warren said the big issue is long-term sustainable finances. The contracts reached with the unions will save the city $200 million, he said, and his administration has created a rainy-day fund from scratch that now has $13 million.
Hess-Mahan hit the mayor over problems in the Police Department and turnover among city staff. Former police chief Matthew Cummings, whom Warren fired for conduct unbecoming, was recently found by an arbitrator to have been wrongly terminated. And a Police Department secretary is suing the city, the mayor, and several employees in state and federal court after she was accused of theft and put on paid administrative leave; she was acquitted of the theft charges earlier this year.
Hess-Mahan said that the staff turnover has led to a demoralized workforce that makes mistakes, citing a recent traffic problem in Newton Centre caused by an intersection reconfiguration that the city eventually reversed.
Warren said that one of the hard things about being a leader is making tough calls.
“I made a decision to remove a police chief because of conduct I don’t think is worthy of leadership in the city,” said Warren. “I’m pleased and proud of the fact that we have a police chief now with professionalism and integrity.”
Warren said he is dedicated to bringing affordable housing to the city, pointing to the recently approved residential, retail, and office development near the MBTA’s Riverside Station, which is slated to include 44 affordable-housing units, and an Austin Street project, still in the very early stages, which could add 25 more. He also pointed to zoning reforms that encourage affordable housing.
But Hess-Mahan pointed to controversy over Engine 6, a proposed affordable-housing development for formerly chronically homeless people that the mayor refused to grant federal funding for over the summer, as an example of an administration he described as unwilling to fight for affordable housing.
“There’s two things you need to end homelessness,” said Hess-Mahan. “You gotta have housing, and you gotta have courage. And this administration did not show either.”
The candidates also discussed the possibility of building a 16th elementary school, in Newton Upper Falls, to accommodate the school district’s swelling enrollment numbers — an idea that Hess-Mahan supports and that Warren has said is not in the city’s plans. Hess-Mahan said another school would promote walkability and equity among the city’s villages, while Warren said the capital plan already addresses enrollment by enlarging existing schools.
Warren and Hess-Mahan will face each other in another debate Tuesday at 7 p.m.