Friday, November 4, 2011

Five thoughts on the Fitchburg mayor's race

With just four days until Election Day, the big question is if Mayor Lisa Wong, who is looking to secure her third three-year term, can come back from a very poor showing in the September preliminary election. She finished a distant second-place to Councilor Joseph Solomito, who pulled well over 50% in elimination stage. Here are five thoughts leading up to Tuesday's election:

1. How much does last week's snowstorm help Mayor Wong? I think it could help a lot. Following the 2008 Ice Storm, parts of Fitchburg were without power for nearly two weeks. Wong, along with Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster) and Reps. Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) and Steve DiNatale (D-Fitchburg), were very vocal advocates for the city in the wake of the storm and put a lot of pressure on Unitil to improve their preparations for future events. While some surrounding areas are still without power as of Friday, Fitchburg was essentially all powered up within three days after the storm. If storm preparation is an issue over the weekend, it will help Wong quite a bit.

2. Will voters accept Wong's argument that austerity was necessary? Councilor Solomito has argued that Wong was wrong in shutting off street lights and cutting other services in order to build up the city's reserve fund, which has reportedly grown from $40,000 four years ago to around $3 million today. Wong's detractors also suggest that the improvement in the city's bond rating (which makes borrowing money cheaper) is the result of factors other than Wong's fiscal conservatism. The mayor's retort is that the city was on such poor financial footing four years ago that extreme measures were necessary to right the ship. It's very easy for voters to relate to the reality that library hours were cut or that their streets are dark at night. If Wong can't get them to believe her argument that those things were necessary to put the city on a stronger financial footing, she loses.

3. Was the preliminary election a sign that Solomito is heading for a landslide, or an indication that Wong didn't worry about the prelims? I think the result had more to do with the latter. The prelim was essentially a waste of time since the third candidate, Kevin Lynch, was more famous (or infamous) for his legal troubles than for his political positions. While I doubt that Wong spent much, if any, effort to get the vote out in September, I think the result probably surprised her and her supporters. My expectation is that Solomito has a lot less room to grow his support than Wong does. That's a double-edged sword for both candidates. On the one hand, I think the Solomito voter is more reliable--I'd guess that a lot of his voters vote in prelims, generals, special elections, you name it. On the other hand, Wong was a fantastic organizer in 2007 when she won for the first time. She has a lot of room to grow if she can be as well organized this weekend.

4. So, can Wong get her people out? I don't know. I suspect yes, but there's no telling for sure. In addition to her own organization, she has the advantage of having the support of some powerful politicians. While Sen. Flanagan has not endorsed a candidate, she is close to Mayor Wong and it wouldn't surprise me if her volunteers were helping the mayor. Flanagan may be the most popular figure in the North County and is probably the most organized. I'd be surprised if some of her people weren't helping get the vote out. I also think last week's endorsement by State Treasures Steve Grossman may be a bigger deal than meets the eye Will more than five voters change their vote because of Grossman? Probably not. Will a number of party activists get the message that if they have nothing else to do this weekend they should get to Fitchburg and pound the pavement for Mayor Wong? Probably so. Getting more feet on the ground and voices on the phone banks can only help.

5. So who will win? I don't know. Solomito has the advantage of high-value voters and the emotional argument that Fitchburg should have been spending money to make life better now instead of saving it for a rainy day. Wong likely has the advantage of organization. I realize this is a cop-out, but I think it is too close to call. The pressure is on Wong to change September's result. I think she will, but I'm not convinced it will be enough to be reelected for a third term.

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