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Wong romps for mayor in Fitchburg

Minority hopefuls defeated elsewhere

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Moskowitz and Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

Just a year after the state elected its first African-American governor, minority candidates on some local ballots stirred hope of greater diversity yesterday. When the votes were counted, they came up short of their goals in Brockton, Lawrence, and Quincy, but in Fitchburg an Asian-American mayoral candidate clobbered her more experienced opponent with 75 percent of the vote. Worcester appeared to have elected a woman mayor for the first time.

Lisa Wong, a 28-year-old political newcomer and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, defeated a four-term city councilor to become the first minority mayor in Fitchburg's 243-year history.

In Brockton, Jass A. Stewart earned 47 percent of the vote, failing in his bid to become the state's first popularly elected mayor who is African-American and gay. Mayor James E. Harrington, the incumbent, won 52 percent, according to unofficial results.

In Lawrence, where Latinos are a majority of a city's registered voters for the first time in Massachusetts, five Latino candidates were on the ballot for the nine City Council seats. They did not win a majority, but tied the city's past minority high-water mark by electing four Latino councilors.

In Fitchburg, the 5-foot-2 Wong stood on a chair at Cafe Destare and told a crowd of about 100 that her election represented a call for transformation in a city of shuttered mills and boarded-up Victorian houses. She envisions technology firms, young professionals, restored mansions, and recreation on the Nashua River.

"The voters of Fitchburg voted for change," said Wong, who received 5,863 votes, to 1,948 for opponent Thomas Donnelly. "The citizens of Fitchburg voted for energized leadership."

Wong also noted the significance of her win, in a city in which Latino students and other minorities now comprise over half of the public school population. Fitchburg was overdue for a minority mayor, Wong said.

"It's about time. Fitchburg has always been a diverse city," she said, encouraging other potential leaders to come forward, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.

Donnelly had called Wong, who is half his age, an interloper who was trying to use the city election as a stepping stone to higher office. She moved to Fitchburg after graduating from Boston University and served as executive director of the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority. Donnelly said the city - which lost about 1,100 jobs between 2001 and 2005, and which could be a candidate for state receivership - needed experience at the helm to restore financial stability. But he lost the preliminary election by 40 percentage points and the general election by an even wider margin.

In Lawrence, where about three-quarters of the city's population of 72,000 speaks a language other than English at home, Latino voters make up an estimated 53 percent of the registered voters, according to city officials. With Mayor Michael Sullivan in the middle of a four-year term, the election for other city positions drew about 18 percent of the 35,700 registered voters in Lawrence yesterday, according to preliminary returns.

Four Latino candidates won election to the City Council: incumbents Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez, Grisel Silva, and Jorge Gonzalez, along with Frank Moran - and Alvarez-Rodriguez was Lawrence's top vote-getter, claiming almost 3,000 votes in the at large council race.

Dozens of people gathered at City Hall to cheer those results. But Gonzalez said his joy was tempered by the failure to elect a Latino majority to the City Council.

Gonzalez, a school bus driver, said white city councilors are not as attuned to Latino issues as Latino councilors.

"It's the same; we don't have a majority," a disappointed Gonzalez said. "If we don't have a majority we're not going anywhere."

During the day, sign-toting campaign supporters huddled under umbrellas as voters trickled into the Gerard A. Guilmette School in the Tower Hill section, with views of the giant mills and smokestacks that dot the Merrimack River.

Silva Peña González, 66, trudged several blocks through the driving rain to vote for Franklin Fernandez, a Latino. Fernandez was seeking to unseat incumbent Nicholas Kolofoles, the retired son of Greek immigrants, from a mostly Latino district.

"I did it," Peña González, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said after she cast her vote wearing blue jeans soaked to the knees. "We have to have people who advocate for us."

But some pointed to the perils of voting for candidates strictly on background. Jesus Rivera, 19, voted for Nunzio DiMarca, because he thought he was Latino. He is Italian.

"I thought he was Spanish," said a bemused Rivera, who is the son of US-born Latinos. "He looks Spanish to me."

In Quincy, where a growing Asian voting bloc represents 9 percent of the city's electorate, two Asian candidates were on the ballot for City Council, but each lost.

In Worcester, the state's second-largest city, Konstantina B. Lukes appeared to win by a 105-vote margin, which would make her the first woman elected mayor in the city's history.

Lukes, who earned the second-most votes in Worcester's last election, has served as mayor since January, when Tim Murray, then the mayor, became lieutenant governor. "We've made history," she said last night, after an unofficial count gave her 7,432 votes to 7,327 for Frederick P. Rushton in a race that also included two other candidates.

Although the state has a minority governor in Deval Patrick, it had no minorities among its nearly four-dozen elected mayors and one among its two City Council-appointed mayors, Ken Reeves of Cambridge, heading into yesterday's election, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. About half a dozen mayors were women.

The minority candidates this year embraced their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation to the extent that they shaped their identities and helped them relate to diverse communities. But they ran on issues that have long been staples of municipal races - taxes, schools, economic development, public safety, quality of life.

In Brockton, Stewart said on the trail that he was running not to be the city's first black mayor or first gay mayor but to be "the best mayor the city's ever seen."

He stressed his plans for leading the city out of economic depression and fighting the crime rate, and he drew support from community groups and the local newspaper in a Cape Verdean-heavy city where about half the population of 94,000 is minority. He also drew endorsements from gay rights and minority groups.

Along the way, the Dallas native and multimedia entrepreneur faced questions about his lack of government experience and had to deal with an apparent attack on his sexual orientation. A photo of Stewart kissing his husband, Denzil Paul, at their wedding three years ago circulated the city recently; a top aide to Harrington was suspended for passing around the photo.

Harrington, a longtime city councilor who defeated Stewart in a race for an open seat two years ago, beat Stewart by 1 percentage point in a three-way preliminary election. He said last night he wanted to unite Brockton and put campaign distractions, such as the wedding photo, in the past.

"We have to work together," said Harrington, whose 11-member advisory council includes nine women or minorities.

At Stewart's post-election event, supporters told him he had energized parts of the community that have historically lacked a voice in politics and encouraged people to become active. But he said he didn't know if he would run for mayor a third time. "Maybe I'm not the right person," he said. "Leadership is about leveraging what people want."

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Michael Naughton and John Dyer contributed to this report.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's City & Region section incorrectly listed the number of Latino candidates running for City Council in Lawrence. There were eight Latino candidates on the ballot.)

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