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Groundbreaking mayor losing favor

Fitchburg’s Wong fights to keep job

Critics say voters aren’t happy with Mayor Lisa Wong’s austerity cuts in Fitchburg. Critics say voters aren’t happy with Mayor Lisa Wong’s austerity cuts in Fitchburg. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / October 31, 2011

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FITCHBURG - Mayor Lisa Wong entered office four years ago as a fresh young voice in an old mill city teetering on the financial brink. She was the state’s first female Asian-American mayor in a place that had never elected a minority to the job.

She made tough choices, extinguishing streetlights to save money and paring hours at the library. She pushed the city to see its river as a recreation magnet, its university as a vibrant partner, its empty buildings as an opportunity instead of a blight.

But now, like half the streetlamps she has darkened, the light might be dimming on the 32-year-old’s administration.

Wong is striving for a comeback in the Nov. 8 election after being trounced in preliminary balloting by a city councilor who has pledged to undo many of the sacrifices he says make life more difficult in the city.

Joseph Solomito, a 60-year-old lawyer who has been a police officer and prosecutor, offers a message designed to appeal to voters weary of austerity: turn the streetlights back on, repair the roads, and hire more police officers.

“People are just unhappy with the way things are,’’ Solomito said.

He outpolled Wong, 2,225 to 1,390, in September’s preliminary election, and his campaign signs sprout over this hilly city of 40,318 people, where the 19.2 percent poverty rate is almost twice the state number.

For a mayor who cruised to landslide victories in 2007 and 2009, this fight has been a bruising anomaly in a record of steady achievement.

The daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Wong was valedictorian at North Andover High School, earned three degrees in three years at Boston University, and became Fitchburg’s mayor, at age 28, after leading the city’s redevelopment authority.

But after helping pull Fitchburg from the brink of bankruptcy - the city had only $10,000 in its rainy-day account when she took office; the city now has $3 million in that reserve - Wong is being criticized for cutting and saving rather than spending some of that money.

“Many municipal things have been let go: The streets are not in good condition; the library’s hours were cut,’’ said City Councilor Thomas Conry Jr., 75, who supports Solomito. “We could have applied some of that money to some of these services, because the money belongs to the citizens of Fitchburg.’’

Wong, who began working in her parents’ Chinese restaurants as a child, is unapologetic about her vision of sacrificing today for a better tomorrow.

“Everybody wants everything solved in just a few years. The City Council would love to be able to afford everything we want right away,’’ Wong said. “We’ve been paying bills without looking at them for years and years.’’

Wong ticked off a long and varied list of accomplishments: an upgrade in the city’s bond rating, 300 new small businesses, better roofing and boilers for the schools, a push for downtown housing for Fitchburg State University students, and a “street mayor’’ program to use the eyes and ears of residents for block-by-block improvement.

A supplemental budget request from Wong, approved Wednesday by the City Council, will expand the library’s hours to 48 a week from 25; add three police officers, for a total of 57; and fund three more public works employees.

The changes in Fitchburg, Wong says unabashedly, have been “miracles.’’

Wong’s critics, however, are loath to give her any credit.

The bond upgrade, to A1 from Baa1, was part of a broad strengthening of municipal credit across Massachusetts, they say. And the supplemental budget, they argue, was a bald attempt to curry votes at election time.

“If she really cared about the library, she would have opened it up in April,’’ Solomito said.

Among Wong’s foes, the criticism often drifts to the personal.

“After the last debate,’’ Conry said, “I said to one of my colleagues that I came away somewhat confused. I heard the word ‘I’ so much that I was wondering whether she or Al Gore invented the Internet.’’

Wong’s critics also complain that she doesn’t listen, that she expects the council to be a rubber stamp, that she’s an opportunistic outsider, and that she’s condescending and dismissive.

“She thinks we’re all stupid. She really does,’’ Solomito said.

And then there is this: the whispers that she might not live in the Fitchburg home she owns.

“There’s been a lot of rumors that she does not live there. I can neither confirm nor deny that,’’ Conry said. “My own personal opinion is that once her term ends, whether she gets defeated or decides she’s had enough, she’s not going to stick around this city.’’

Wong, who was endorsed Tuesday by state Treasurer Steve Grossman, reacted indignantly to the suggestion that she is a political carpetbagger.

“I don’t know if they want pictures of me sleeping in my bed at night,’’ Wong said. “I would say shame on them for courting rumors that are obviously not true and are easily unproven.’’

Paul Weizer, chairman of the political science department at Fitchburg State University, said Wong has helped lead the city forward. “She restored order to a house that didn’t have much order when she came in,’’ Weizer said. “She came around at exactly the right time.’’

To Michael Voisine, who owns a Main Street sub shop, Wong has been an antidote to what he called the clubby, entrenched interests that had long run Fitchburg.

“She inherited a mess that probably took 30 years to make. We need to get her in a few more times,’’ said Voisine, 46, whose sparsely furnished restaurant was nearly empty at lunch.

Down the street at City Hall Cafe, a homey spot in a downtown muffled by shuttered storefronts, waitress Mona Roberts offered mixed reviews of the mayor.

“Lisa has a lot on her plate, but I think she’s not communicating well. I think she needs to get back to one on one,’’ Roberts said. “There are some really, really good people here.’’

Some of those people appear to want a breather. Although the city’s finances are better, Weizer said, the public’s taste for tough medicine appears to be limited.

“A lot of what she’s doing is trying to change things that have been done forever and ever and ever,’’ Weizer said. “It’s a difficult chore. No one wants to be told you can’t do things, you have to save.’’

Wong said she remains undaunted. Only 18 percent of the city’s voters cast ballots in the preliminary election.

“It has definitely been a tough fight, but it’s been one I’ve been willing to take on,’’ Wong said. “I definitely haven’t been given a free pass, and I don’t mind.’’

In an interview at campaign headquarters, a stark rear room in a performing arts center, Wong said a bit ruefully that “I can never say I was born here.’’ However, she added, “I’ve worked in the city for a decade and dedicated my life to making this city a better place.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.