If you haven’t already, please go watch the Ward 2 candidates forum between Councilor Emily Norton and challenger Bryan Barash, competing for the Ward 2 ward councilor seat. This promised to be one of the more interesting debates in the series of informative forums hosted by the Newton League of Women Voters and produced by NewTV Government. It does not disappoint.

If you have to choose between watching the video or reading this analysis, definitely watch the video. But, if you can do both …

Some takeaways, in no particular order.

1. Best response of the debate: Candidate Barash telling the stories of three people in Newton who are having housing issues. Might actually be the best response of any of the league forums.

I think about my friend Kara. She recently had the rent raised by over sixty percent by her landlord, and she might not be able to stay here.

I think about my friend Andrew, who graduated from college recently and doesn’t think he’s going to be able to move back here even though he wants to.

You know, I think about a woman I met, Liza at her door, who would really like to downsize into a condo, but she says there are no options there for her.

Takes that into a discussion of smart growth.

I wish he’d tied it together a little more explicitly, but these stories really drive home how there are not enough housing options in Newton. There are not enough multi-family housing options. And, it’s not new development that’s driving higher rents. Kara’s rent is going up because more people want to live in Newton than there are apartments for, so landlords can get more rent. It’s the same reason market-rate units in new development are so eye-popping. People are willing to pay a lot of money to live here, and it’s going to displace those who can’t afford the escalating rents. Even if we don’t build another unit of market-rate housing, rents are going to go up.

If we remain a city of primarily single-family homes, if we don’t build a lot more housing, we’re not going to provide reasonable options for Kara, Andrew, and Liza. And, we’re not going to help solve the regional housing crisis, which Candidate Barash both acknowledges and says we have an obligation to help solve.

This is in sharp contrast to Councilor Norton’s who supports not-for-profit affordable housing, but otherwise advocates for little or not change. As she states, her desire is to protect the suburban Newton that people chose when they moved here.

2. The two took very different approaches to the question of drawing distinctions between the two of them. Councilor Norton was very comfortable going  negative. She criticized Candidate Barash for his work on the Charter commission, specifically the difference between the two of them on the question of ward representation. She supports it. He advocated for a council without ward representatives. She also criticized him for driving to work and for taking campaign contributions from two state lobbyists. And, in what can only be described as a smear, she implied that, because he works in state government, Candidate Barash is somehow responsible for the exemptions to open meeting laws for legislators and the governor. He’s a staffer.

It was clear that she went into the debate prepared to make the attacks. And, they weren’t glancing blows. She wove the attack about the two contributions (since returned) into three different answers (including her closing statement).

Candidate Barash deftly answered the transparency smear, noting that he got the endorsement from an open-government advocacy PAC. And, he counter-punched effectively on the contributions, noting that Councilor Norton did not reveal the names of sub $50 contributors. (My understanding is that she has since revealed all names.)

Otherwise, Candidate Barash did not explicitly call out his differences with Councilor Norton, which seems odd for a challenger making the case to replace an incumbent. (On the other hand, it’s a bit odd for an incumbent to go on the offensive.) He articulated what are clearly different policy preferences, but did not identify them as differences.

I have no idea how this is going to play for the on-the-fence voter. 

3. [Deleting this.]

4. Both candidates are strong on the need for better commuter rail. Councilor Norton recently organized a great Transit Matters event on Regional Rail. Candidate Barash says commuter rail is priority one and that he’s ready for Newton to spend money to fix the platforms. At the Transit Matters event, Councilor Norton learned that there might be money to get for platforms from the feds as part of the coming Pike straightening Allston/Brighton and she says it’s a priority for her to go after that. Clearly, whoever wins, the platforms are going to be a focus.

Was a little weird for Councilor Norton, though, to describe herself as a strong advocate for commuter rail and also say that she only learned from the Transit Matters event that our one-sided platforms are the blocker to more frequent commuter-rail service, both inbound and outbound.

5. Candidate Barash says we should combine repaving with bike lanes, wider sidewalks, make it a part of roads program to make streets more walkable and bike able. Exactly right.

6. Candidate Norton’s position on parking and traffic is basically a protection of the status quo. She wants to protect neighborhood parking. Worried about people “experiencing traffic.” People who complain about traffic because it makes it hard to drive are the traffic.

7. Tough to get on board with Candidate Barash’s assertion that a lack of pro-active planning is what’s keeping us from revitalizing Newton Centre and other village centers. Newton Centre has had plenty of planning efforts. The plans go into a closet in the mayor’s office, without any action taken. Unless there’s a change to its current trajectory, zoning reform is not going to be the answer, either. The draft minimizes changes to the intensity of development in favor of future changes after, you guessed it, more planning.

The problem in Newton Centre is that, unlike with Washington St., there’s not a a developer with a bunch of property lighting a fire under everyone. Frankly, Newton Centre needs a Robert Korff more than another study. That’s what’s going to initiate change.

8. Councilor Norton takes a lot of credit for having led a lot of stuff: Newton Power Choice, plastic-bag ban, electric-vehicle charging, accessory apartments, divesting from fossil fuels, changing the name from aldermen to city councilors*, protecting open space, protecting the ward councilor seat, affordable housing, diversity. There’s no question that Councilor Norton has been a leader, indeed the leader, on some of these issues, notably her opposition to charter reform. But, why then does she take credit for leading on issues that were driven more collaboratively or, in fact, by others? And, given her opposition to projects that have generated or will generate significant affordable housing, it’s tough for her to claim credit for affordable housing, generally.

9 Whether you agree with her or not, Councilor Norton is very clear on where she stands. At Riverside, she colorfully said, “I think we really need to be looking for support from the community, not ramming things down people’s throats.” These are neighbors who are separated from the project by an eight-lane highway. You could not get purer advocacy for hyper-local control of land-use decisions.

10. Councilor Norton says she works well with colleagues. Seven of them have endorsed Candidate Barash. (Nine have endorsed her.)

11. Anybody who says that this election isn’t primarily about housing and development has to explain how three of the eight questions were directly related to housing and development and the candidates raised housing and development in their openings, their answers to why they were running, the transparency question, and their closings.

Opening 2:40
Primary reasons for running 5:55
Suburban character and need for affordable housing 9:00
Non-taxable institutions 12:05
Northland 14:12
Riverside 17:26
Traffic Congestion 20:20
Transparency 23:30
Marijuana 29:58
Closings 32:12

* Fun personal fact. Back in 2010, I happened upon an official city document that, among other things, said that the proper address of all aldercritters, male and female is “Alderman.” I thought that was crappy and wrote to all the then sitting women aldermen. Some were fine with it. Nobody thought it was worth worrying about. Good for Councilor Norton for working to change this relic.

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