Can This Underdog Candidate Unseat America's Most Popular Governor?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the tide has shifted since 2016.
By Matt Foley
The son of a Korean War veteran and civil rights activist, Setti Warren knew that he too wanted to make a difference. To hear him tell it, he felt called to a life of service. So, naturally, he set his sights on medicine.
Except, “I was way too squeamish to be a doctor,” Warren, 47, tells OZY, chuckling as he thinks back to the path that led him to politics. “But it was all about, ‘How can I help people?’ My dad would often say that you weren’t a full-fledged citizen unless you served in some capacity.”
And Warren has, dedicating the past two decades to politics and the military. Now, the imperturbable mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, is neck-deep in a gubernatorial race. Since announcing his candidacy in May, Warren has been gearing up for the battle to unseat incumbent Gov. Charlie Baker, the rare Republican in a left-leaning state who boasts a 70 percent approval rating. Baker’s popularity has kept top Republican challengers at bay, but Warren and his supporters believe Massachusetts is ripe for change. “Deciding not to run for a third term as Newton mayor was a tough call,” says the Democratic candidate. “But as I started to move around the state and hear from people, it was clear to me that people and communities are falling behind.”
In a state where an incumbent governor has not been defeated in a general election since 1974, the odds are steep.
The first popularly elected Black mayor in Massachusetts is the son of the late Joseph Warren, a longtime confidant to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and an adviser on Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign. After graduating from Boston College, in 1993, Warren worked on the re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton, who occupied the White House until 2000. But then a shift: “I’d always known that I wanted to serve in the military; it was only a matter of when,” says Warren. “When” was the 9/11 attack, which prompted him to enlist in the U.S. Navy Reserve. While awaiting deployment, he worked as trip director for Sen. John Kerry’s 2003 presidential campaign. The two became close, with Kerry serving as a groomsman when Warren and Tassy — another Kerry campaign staffer — married three years later.
In 2007, Warren was sent to Iraq as a naval intelligence specialist — an experience he calls the most formative of his life. “Being on the base with so many people of diverse backgrounds … we couldn’t afford not to work together,” he says. “That lens of being able to understand different perspectives really helped me be a stronger mayor.”
Working together, sharing perspectives — it sounds like a stump speech, but Virginia Gardner swears that Warren walks the walk. The Newton resident wasn’t always a believer — she supported Ruth Balser when Warren first ran for mayor in 2009 — but she was impressed by Warren’s leadership during the town’s much publicized February 2017 move to become a sanctuary city. Gardner opposed the ordinance, afraid that legislation protecting unauthorized immigrants from arrest would hinder local law enforcement’s ability to do their job. But the mayor’s ability to connect with people on both sides of the debate produced a palatable outcome. “Most of our group came to support it,” says Gardner. “That was no easy task … but he has a proven track record of bringing people together.”
Since his election in 2009, Warren has brought his hometown’s $40 million budget deficit into balance, built a near-$20 million “rainy day fund” and invested in solar energy programs to cut Newton’s carbon footprint. But, as far as cities go, Newton — which, after Boston, boasts the highest collection of millionaires in Massachusetts — isn’t beset by many of the problems plaguing larger urban communities. Still, Warren contends that Newton has prepared him well. “One in seven of our residents live at or below the poverty line,” he states. “It is the perfect example of economic inequality, which is the defining issue of our time.… It’s the reason I got into this race.”
As he squares off against Baker, Warren has been promoting a dual attack to combat economic inequality. His core proposals — instituting a single-payer health care system and free public college — have earned endorsements from progressive political action groups like Democrats for America–Massachusetts and the Collective PAC, and could be the key to knocking the conservative Baker out of office. But, in a state where an incumbent governor has not been defeated in a general election since 1974, the odds are steep.
Peter Ubertaccio, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Stonehill College, explains that Republican governors are largely viewed as a mechanism to balance power at the heavily Democratic Massachusetts Statehouse. What’s more, Baker “tends to be viewed as a bipartisan figure,” says Ubertaccio. “He works well with Democrats on Beacon Hill and is one of the most popular politicians in the country.”
But Warren isn’t buying it. He says Baker is a pencil pusher for the state’s few flourishing Boston-centric industries — namely biotech and life sciences — who is uninterested in improving conditions for all. “People are working harder than ever just to keep their head above water,” says Warren. He hammers away at the state’s dreadful mass transit system, criticizing Baker for trying “to privatize transportation” instead of investing in infrastructure to revitalize the sector and generate a healthy workforce.
In response, Massachusetts GOP spokesperson Terry MacCormack tells OZY that “household incomes have increased dramatically across all demographic and socioeconomic groups” under Gov. Baker’s leadership, and the state has seen strong job growth (adding 9,600 jobs in October). Moreover, says McDonald, Warren’s plans for tax hikes “would hurt our workforce and undo the progress we’ve made.… Mayor Warren seems uninterested in letting facts get in the way of cynical attempts to advance his political career.”
Can Warren score a major upset one year from now? Depends on whom you ask, but the former naval specialist is more than ready to serve — starting with revamping the T and making the commonwealth a more equitable, affordable place for all.