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By News One


Gov. Deval Patrick and Mayor-Elect Setti Warren, left, waved from inside Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton, Mass., where Mr. Warren will be inaugurated Jan. 1.

History Made, Mayor-Elect Focuses on Local Issues

NEWTON, Mass. — Setti Warren was a toddler out with his mother one day in the 1970s when white teenagers hurled rocks and racial epithets their way, prompting his outraged father to call City Hall.

Almost four decades later, Mr. Warren will be inaugurated next Friday as Newton’s first African-American mayor, taking charge of a city where blacks still make up only 3 percent of the population but where skin color played virtually no role, he said, in his race against a white opponent.

“I’m actually really proud of that,” he said last week, sitting in his empty transition office near the Massachusetts Turnpike. “People were willing to look beyond race in making their decision, and that’s a tribute to Newton and its progressive nature.”

Race may not have been a factor in Mr. Warren’s election, but his victory has put this affluent suburb of Boston in a unique position nationally: its residents are the first to have elected a black mayor, governor and president.

Despite that distinction, Mr. Warren, 39, clearly sees his mandate in down-to-earth terms. Like President Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick, he faces a budget crisis, a restive constituency and an impatience for new ideas. And while he does not rule out a run for higher office — his fans include Mr. Obama, who called last month to congratulate him, and Bill Clinton, his former boss — Mr. Warren must first succeed in prosaic municipal politics.

Newton, a brainy and self-assured city of 83,000, is mired in budget woes, not least because of a project the state treasurer has tartly labeled a Taj Mahal: a new state-of-the-art high school whose price is approaching $200 million due to its complex design and unexpectedly high construction costs.

Good schools are by far the top priority here, but the project’s spiraling cost — the highest ever for a Massachusetts public school — has outraged even the staunchest supporters of education spending. Mr. Warren may have to raise taxes or cut services to help pay for the high school.

“He’s not naïve about the potential jam he’s in,” said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant and longtime Newton resident. “But he’s convinced he can harness the talents of the citizenry and make the city function smoothly again.”

Mr. Warren’s father is an administrator at Northeastern University who worked for former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. His mother, now retired, was a social worker. He worked on Mr. Clinton’s advance team and in the White House social office, ran the New England division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and served as deputy state director for Senator John Kerry, who was a groomsman in Mr. Warren’s wedding.

While serving a year in Iraq as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, Mr. Warren decided to return to his roots.

“It just affirmed and reinforced my belief in public service,” Mr. Warren said of his deployment. “What I feel most passionate about is making people’s lives better, and I wanted to do it right here in my own community — particularly after experiencing Iraq.”

He lives in his childhood home with his wife, Tassy, who works on child development at Harvard, and their year-old daughter, Abigail. He announced his candidacy after returning from Iraq in October 2008, then introduced himself to Newton voters by knocking on more than 11,000 doors.

“There’s no doubt people wanted to change the direction the city was going in,” said Mr. Warren, who coincidentally ended up with about 11,000 votes — 463 more than his opponent and fellow Democrat, State Representative Ruth B. Balser. “But I also think that my direct contact with people was one of the major reasons for my success.”

He ran on the premise that Newton’s stellar reputation was slipping because of mismanagement — a message that apparently shook voters who had paid top dollar to buy homes and raise children here. He wants to generate revenue by seeking larger payments in lieu of taxes from local nonprofit institutions, like Boston College, and curtailing the cost of health benefits for city employees and retirees, which he said were growing by 11 percent annually.

Mr. Warren said the high school project, whose price has nearly doubled since 2003 and comes out to more than $100,000 per student, had been “completely mismanaged.” Voters protested last year, rejecting a plan to override a cap on property tax increases; many still resent the project and the bad publicity it has drawn.

“People here want the schools to be first rate,” Mr. Payne said, “but they don’t necessarily want the school buildings to be the most expensive in America.”

There are no term limits here, and the outgoing mayor — David Cohen, who did not seek re-election amid the high school controversy — has served since 1998. Mr. Warren hinted he was planning on at least two terms.

“It’s really going to take a chief executive six or eight years to move this city in the right direction,” he said.

He started this month by firing Mr. Cohen’s entire executive staff and several other officials.

Mr. Patrick, who took Mr. Warren to lunch shortly after the election, advised him to engage the broadest possible spectrum of constituents, including those who had opposed his candidacy.

“With this economic environment, it’s tough to gain consensus on any level,” Mr. Warren said. “He encouraged me to really reach out to as many people as I can.”

In a place like Newton — replete with academics, psychiatrists and other overachievers — that could be dangerous, Mr. Payne said.

“Everyone here thinks they’re an expert,” he said, citing residents who built their own architectural models to challenge the design of the new high school. “There are no people here who just say, ‘I’ll leave it up to City Hall.’ ”

Told of that warning, Mr. Warren laughed.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “But I think the test of good, strong leadership is tapping into that talent and being able to maximize it.”

From The New York Times