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Newton politicos split over Mayor Setti Warren's potential Senate run

Posted by Sarah Thomas  March 1, 2011 06:06 PM

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Newton politicians — Republican and Democrat, past and present — expressed mixed feelings about Mayor Setti Warren’s announcement this week that he is considering a run for the US Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown.

"Setti has a huge future," said Scott Lennon, president of the Newton Board of Aldermen. "This was inevitable, but I didn't think it would happen this soon."

Warren's name has consistently been on a short list of Democratic hopefuls for the seat, and Warren's personal friend Governor Deval Patrick has said on more than one occasion that Warren was considering a run.

But until Monday night, Warren, a first-term mayor who entered office in January 2010, had steadfastly maintained that his attention was focused solely on Newton, his childhood home.

Brown, who won in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by Edward M. Kennedy’s death, will be up for reelection in 2012.

Lennon, a Democrat and a friend of Warren's for the last 20 years, said he thinks Warren would be a good senator, though the timing may be difficult.

"I always envisioned him as one of those people who would be able to take a piece of legislation from colleague to colleague and from corner to corner of the Commonwealth, to build consensus and eventually get it passed," Lennon said. "But if campaigning to do that means there would be a lack of focus on his job as mayor, my fear is that things will start slipping through the cracks, like the budget. We need to have everyone focused right now."

While campaigning for mayor, Warren's past experience — he was the New England director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a deputy state director for US Senator John Kerry — suggested to some that his aspirations might reach beyond City Hall. One of those was Paul Coletti, an alderman who was chair of the city's Finance Committee for 26 years and lost in the preliminary contest for mayor.

"After I lost ... I almost immediately endorsed Setti, and at the time I even said I thought he was like a comet who was just passing through our airspace," Coletti said. "I always believed he had higher aspirations."

Coletti recalled Warren saying during his mayoral campaign that he wanted to serve a four-year term as mayor.

"The city deserves the kind of leadership he said he wanted to provide," Coletti said. "Serving in local politics for as long as I did, I can understand how the day to day grind of city government can wear a person down. But I still think he should stick with what he promised."

Nonetheless, Coletti acknowledged that there is a certain amount of serendipity inherent in politics, which he understood Warren would not want to ignore.

"When my race failed, people said maybe I had waited too long to try to become mayor. There might have been something to that," Coletti said. "Timing is everything, and this is a dilemma he'll have to face."

When it comes to being tempted with the prospect of a Washington office, few people in Newton have more recent experience than alderwoman Greer Tan Swiston. A Republican, Swiston was the focus of a grass-roots movement last year to put her name on the ballot to run against US Representative Barney Frank.

"I was in an awkward position, because the amount of work it would have taken for me to run against a well-known incumbent would have taken more away from my work as an alderman than I felt was right," Swiston said. "But at the same time, if you have people who really believe in you and want to advance your name, it's hard to not respond to that belief in you."

Nonetheless, Swiston said she would be disappointed if Warren left Newton so soon.

"My initial reaction [to the announcement] was major disappointment, and I say that with all admiration for Mayor Warren," Swiston said. "I think he'll make a great Senator someday, but we have a lot of problems right here in Newton."

Swiston is not alone in her admiration for Warren's work so far as mayor. Al Cecchinelli, also a Republican, said he believes Warren is doing ‘‘a superb job’’ in his freshman term. Cecchinelli is president of the Newton Taxpayers Association and vice chair of the Newton Republican City Committee, and is also running for Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian's old state representative seat.

"If Mayor Warren does elect to take Scott Brown on, he's going to have a very tough time," Cecchinelli said. "Brown had a groundswell of enthusiasm and enormous grass-roots support that has left him with a $7 million war chest. It's going to be an uphill battle for anyone who runs against him."

Cecchinelli said that, despite their political differences, he thought Warren's strategy of balancing budgets without resorting to overrides had been good for the city.

"I'd like to see him finish out his term," Cecchinelli said.

One former Newton politician had full-throated support for Warren should he decide to run for Senate, however.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for him, and he'd be a very strong candidate," said former Newton mayor David Cohen, whom Warren replaced. "He's a very capable guy with a deep understanding of today's issues, and having a former Newton mayor as a US senator can only be a good thing for the town."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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