The three Ward 5 Ward Councilor candidates — Kathy Winters, Bill Humphrey, and Rena Getz — met for debate again on Thursday at the Emerson Community Center in a forum hosted by the three area councils in Ward 5: Waban, Newton Highlands, and Lower Falls.

Some takeaways follow. If you have time to watch or listen to the video, you should.  

1. A forum co-hosted by the Waban area council. The president and vice-president of the Waban area council are candidates. Hmmm.

2. Candidate Getz’s best answer was a full-throated call for expanded senior services, lamenting the social isolation that some seniors face, calling to double or triple funds for program and services, noting the critical need for infrastructure and transportation services to fully meet seniors’ needs. As noted previously, all three candidates seem like strong advocates for seniors and Candidates Winters and Humphrey had solid answers on NewCAL and seniors, too. But, Candidate Getz was notably thoughtful, knowledgeable, and passionate on the topic. 

3. Candidate Getz’s worst answer included an infuriating story of a woman who commutes an hour each way to work in Newton. Candidate Getz’s concern was laudable and appropriate, but the answer to the problem is to dramatically increase housing in the region, something she makes clear over and over that she’s not interested in. Candidate Getz is quite literally part of the reason the woman has to drive an hour.*

4. Yes, it’s great when high-profile folks like Marjorie Arons-Barron volunteer their time for important civic exercises like the forum, but holy cow were her questions slanted anti-development. The questions were ostensibly from the community, but at least one was completely rewritten.

5. You have to do a lot of reading between the lines in these forums. The questions are not designed to elicit sharp distinctions among the candidates and the candidates, for the most part, 

6. Candidate Humphrey’s best answer was a sly rebuke of the other candidates’ “I’m here to channel the constituents” refrain. In response to a question about the role of Ward councilor, Candidate Humphrey made the case that the job of a political leader is not just to listen to what constituents say but to go out and make the case for a particular position. 

7. Candidate Humphrey also had a nice moment on dealing with change. He continues to cite, effectively, his family’s multi-generation experience living on Chestnut St. The development that his great grandfather found unwelcome became the homes for the cherished neighbors of later generations of Humphreys. And, he confidently made the point to an audience that is mostly hostile to change.

8. Candidate Humphrey stumbled on the question to the candidates about an override. Begging off to learn what the specifics are going to be is not enough. It’s clear we’re going to need more money. 

9. Candidate Winters distinguished herself with how clearly she acknowledges reality. Her best answer was her well-reasoned rejection of the city demographer’s conclusions about school enrollment. Candidate Winters flatly noted that the regional housing crisis is putting pressure on Newton that the city cannot fully control and that will be reflected in higher school population that we have to plan for now. Candidate Winters was likewise clear-eyed about affordable housing, stating that love it or hate it, large-scale private development yields affordable housing. And, she was clear that we have to consider development in the larger regional context, not just what’s good for Newton.

11. Candidate Winters also had a nice moment with the inevitable role-of-the-ward-councilor question saying that her job was to act on behalf of the city, but to make sure that the concerns of the ward are brought to the discussion. FWIW, I think the ward v. at-large councilor discussions are mostly theoretical. In practice, some of the biggest ward chauvinists are and have been at-large aldermen/councilors. Maybe there’s a marginal or occasional impact on elections when a councilor ignores the ward’s specific needs, but …

12. Candidate Winters’ low point was her answer on historic preservation, where she basically said she’s in favor of everything, some of which are conflicting: adding housing, reduce teardown vulnerability, promoting historic preservation, reducing climate change. If you believe that some of the issues facing the city require a strong statement of values, this can be frustrating. 

13. While it can sometimes challenging to discern the differences among the candidates, some distinctions are becoming clear. On seniors, open space, basic environmental stuff, there does not appear to be much space among the three. It appears that they all basically agree on the need for affordable housing, but not the ends to which they’ll go to get more built.

So, how are they different? Oversimplifying a bit, Candidate Getz is clearly the candidate of limited growth. Candidate Humphrey is clearly the progressive-values candidate, with well-developed positions on development, public services, transportation, fairness, and equality. Candidate Winters is the process/consensus candidate. 

Something for everyone!

* Yes, adding more units to Newton might not create a home that this particular woman could afford or would want. But, we participate in a regional housing market. Adding units to Newton creates opportunity and reduces prices across the region.

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