Newton’s new mayor, Setti Warren, talks to CommonWealth‘s Alison Lobron about the challenges of a 24/7 job, the meaning of Martha Coakley’s loss, and how to govern a highly opinionated city. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lobron: Is Setti a nickname?
Warren: No. Setti was an Egyptian pharaoh. My parents did a lot of research and looked at various pharaohs over various dynasties to find this particular Setti. He was a person very much interested in infrastructure and roads, which is fascinating, because I’m mayor now. There might be some kind of weird correlation between the two.
Lobron: And are roads interesting to you?
Warren: No. Well, they are because I’m mayor now. [Laughs.] We do need to have some very serious long-term investment in infrastructure. As you know, a lot of municipalities are dealing with the same issues we are: aging buildings, aging roads, and we need a long-term sustainable plan to address those. We can’t do it all at once.
Lobron: You’ve now been in office about a month. How does the reality of mayorhood compare to the expectation?
Warren: It’s been great. I think one of the things you learn rather quickly is that you have to make decisions often. I think all mayors, when they first come into office, face the magnitude of those decisions and the number of them. But I’ve really enjoyed it. I live down the street in the house where I grew up, and I’m thrilled to be representing Newton.
Lobron: Have there been any surprises?
Warren: Every day you learn something new. You learn about a particular constituent problem you have to deal with. You’re seeing it from a different viewpoint. You’re not seeing it from just being a resident. You’re responsible for making sure the day-to-day operations of the city are performing at a high level. I don’t know that that surprised me, but when you start the job, you realize that that level of responsibility is with you all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lobron: Some talk about the need to be constantly “on” as one of the reasons talented young people don’t want to be politicians. They want to do other stuff and keep their personal lives personal. How have you found a balance?
Warren: I have a terrific spouse, who has been with me every step of the way, and we have a 19-month-old daughter. I find a way, oftentimes, to get home and tuck her into bed, and then at times I have to come back out and do events. We’ve done well at balancing so far.
Lobron: You’re an African-American mayor of a city that’s 85 percent white. Would you talk a little about what that dynamic means for you as mayor?
Warren: I’m really proud of the city. I’m proud the city looked past race in my election. It was not an issue. It’s a statement about Newton first, and how far we’ve come but also about the state of the country. If you look back, Newton was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Then, look at the election of Deval Patrick and President Obama. They ran on the basis of connecting directly with people — not through the lens of race, but around the issues. They were both grassroots campaigns. I used the same model and was successful. But overall, I’m just very proud of Newton. Voters looked past race and wanted to know who would be the best person to lead us right now.
Lobron: As someone now entering, what lessons do you take from the special US Senate election?
Warren: Well, in this election cycle, anyone thinking about public office really has to work very hard at connecting directly with people. As someone who carries the same values as Senator Kennedy, and Attorney General Coakley, I was extremely disappointed she didn’t have the opportunity to continue those values, the values of the Democratic Party today. But we have to work hard as elected officials to not only listen to people, but connect with what’s happening in their everyday lives and propose solutions that work. That’s hard to do in an environment where people are somewhat uncertain about the future, but we just have to keep working on it.
Lobron: During your campaign, you talked a lot about the idea of increasing “civic engagement.” How do you know when you’re succeeding at “engagement”?
Warren: We’re fortunate in Newton to have so many people willing to give their time and energy to the city. The challenge for any leader is harnessing that energy and directing it. Part of what I have to do in connecting with civic engagement is getting input from people about the fiscal challenges we face. So what I’m doing is hosting town hall meetings in each of our wards to engage people and make sure they know what Newton has to do to provide services for people. But there’s also the challenge of keeping that energy harnessed, and making sure people continue to volunteer. We have area councils, which are a part of government and give real input to the board of aldermen and the mayor. Part of what I’ve talked about is promoting these area councils as a way for people to make decisions at a very local level, the 13 villages of Newton. And I’m creating something called the Newton Volunteer Corps. That’s an opportunity to tap into people who haven’t been involved in the city, to reach out to people who haven’t been on boards or commissions but can lend a certain amount of time and talent.
Lobron: In advance of our conversation, I asked some Newton residents what they consider the “hot issues” in your city. I was surprised at how detailed their questions were. Frankly, they put my own knowledge of my city to shame. Is an engaged citizenry ever a curse as well as a blessing?
Warren: I think it’s a blessing. It’s fantastic. The challenge is having the right kind of leadership to tap into that.
Lobron: They all had very strong opinions.
Warren: I’m sure. [Laughs.] But I’ve traveled around the world and the country and we are very lucky that so many people are engaged and want to be involved.
Lobron: I was also struck by how nitty-gritty their questions are. Like, “What are you going to do about class sizes?” and “Should kindergarten be whole day or half day?” To what extent do you see yourself affecting that level of decision-making?
Warren: Well, the mayor sits on the school committee as a voting member. So I have some influence. My particular influence is around the resources provided to the schools. My priorities are finding and keeping the most qualified teachers we can, keeping class sizes as low as possible, and making sure our buildings are conducive to learning. We need a long-range plan for investment in all our buildings, including our schools.
Lobron: How has the “Taj Mahal” — the nickname applied to the rebuilding of Newton North High School — affected the city’s appetite for new infrastructure projects?
Warren: You know, I’ve said repeatedly I don’t want to fight the old battle. The school is moving forward and we expect it to open this fall. We should learn the lessons, but I’ve committed to not fighting old battles over Newton North.
Lobron: So what are the lessons from the rebuilding of Newton North?
Warren: We’ve got to look at infrastructure and building needs holistically, and be smart about it. We also have to make sure there’s a process in place that keeps us to a certain budget and timetable. One of the things I’m going to do is have a person responsible for managing our capital assets and making the correct investments.
Lobron: Is that a new position?
Warren: No, it’s a reorganization of what we have now, not necessarily adding a new position.
Lobron: If you had to name the one thing you want to accomplish during your tenure, what would it be?
Warren: One? There are a lot.
Lobron: How about the top three?
Warren: Working and striving for excellence in education. I want to make sure we have services that are responsive to every citizen and that we are not only efficient, but are listening to people. One of the things I talked about on Martin Luther King Day was that when there are diminishing resources, there can be a tendency for communities to be much more divisive and negative in tone. I’d like our city to face these challenges together. The last thing is the long-term financial stability of the city.
Lobron: For most of your professional life, you held staff positions in federal government. How have you found the transition to local government?
Warren: Born and raised in the city, I’ve been active as a resident for a long time. While I had some amazing opportunities at the federal level, I’ve been involved here locally all along.
Lobron: What got you involved originally?
Warren: There was an incident that happened here in the ’80s, when I was a junior in high school. It was an incident between black students and white students and it erupted. The mayor at the time, Ted Mann, who knew I was the class president, called me into his office. I was sitting right here at this table, and he said, “Tell me what’s going on at the high school. Tell me what happened.” I described it. It was a national story. He said, “I want you to go back into the high school and calm students down. Help bring students together.” I was this 17-year-old kid sitting here with the mayor, and was a little intimidated, but I said, “OK, I’m going to go back in.” We came together, started having discussion groups, and helped calm the situation down. I never forgot that moment. It’s always been a part of my desire to be involved not only with Newton, but in public service.
Lobron: Did things get better at the high school?
Warren: I think they did. We had some great discussions around race, background, and understanding why people do things the way they do.
Lobron: Is the Newton of today the same city you grew up in?
vWarren: It’s different in many ways; the same in others. I think it’s a fabulous community.