Lisa Wong answers the wake-up call
Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong received a Martha Coakley-style shock to the system when City Councilor Joseph Solomito trounced her in the September preliminary election, 60 percent to 37 percent. But Wong energized her supporters and then some, riding a record voter turnout in yesterday’s election to stage a stunning comeback victory, thumping Solomito by a 56-44 percent margin.
Issue number one in Fitchburg? Turning on more streetlights and reversing other cutbacks in city services. Wong turned off many of the lights to save money when she came into office in 2008. Solomito, a former assistant district attorney and Fitchburg police officer, quickly seized on simmering resentment over the moves. He promised to turn all lights back on along with expanding library hours and hiring more police officers. However, he had little to say about precisely where the money would come from to pay for these reversals.
Vulnerable on these in-your-face issues and admittedly getting her re-election campaign off to a late start, the state’s first female Asian-American mayor quickly pivoted to spotlight some potent intangibles. When she first took office the city was in dire straits. Exhibit A was a reserve fund that contained a paltry $10,000. Wong boosted the fund to about $3 million. She also took center stage on the economic development front by embracing Fitchburg State University as a key player in the city’s revitalization effort and coaxing a variety of new small businesses to town.
The mayor’s reputation as a can-do urban mechanic also paid dividends in the form of support from her fellow Gateway City leaders. Outgoing New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang touted his support for Wong as a “thoughtful and article advocate for Fitchburg” in the pages of the Sentinel and Enterprise (even if the paper didn’t get his name right). Haverhill’s Jim Fiorentini chimed in on her Facebook page, wishing that he could vote for her.
But there may be more to Wong’s triumph than stashing away money for a rainy day and kind words from her fellow mayors. Call it the Unitil factor.
More than one elected leader has been done in by a lackluster response to a natural disaster. But Wong’s response to last month’s surprise nor’easter recalled the mayor’s finest hour: her response to the 2008 ice storm that devastated the region and pitted Wong in a still-running battle against Unitil, the much-despised area power company.
With 25,000 residents without power in the immediate aftermath of the recent Halloween weekend storm, Wong posted continuous updates to her Facebook page about the scope of the power outages. She also contrasted Unitil’s failure to provide basic information about outages to other power utility companies’ efforts to keep customers informed.
Now secure in her third two-year term, Wong remains one of the key leaders in what is certain to be a renewed campaign to persuade Beacon Hill to allow more municipalities to set up their own power companies.
Ayanna Pressley tops the ticket in Boston’s at-large City Council race, while Michael Flaherty’s comeback bid comes up short as all four incumbent at-large councilors are reelected. Peter Gelzinis has some backhanded congratulations for the council’s top vote-getter. In a strong rebuke to Mayor Tom Menino and outgoing City Councilor Maureen Feeney, who both put lots of muscle behind John O’Toole, who was jockeying to succeed Feeney in the Dorchester district council seat, Frank Baker rolled to victory.
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