Election Day Special: Picking Leaders

Lisa Wong is the mayor of Fitchburg, MA. Just over 30 years old, her story is an inspiring one. Born to Chinese immigrants in northeastern Massachusetts, she was valedictorian of her high school class, whizzed through Boston University, and by her mid-20’s was the director of the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority (the agency responsible for regulating and organizing economic development in the city). In 2007, at age 28, she became the first Asian-American woman to be elected mayor of a Massachusetts municipality.

At the time of Wong’s election, Fitchburg was struggling. Decades of cronyist politics had left the city’s coffers empty. Wong took rapid action, turning off selected street lights to save on electricity costs, and shortening the hours of some public institutions, notably the library. She went beyond austerity measures, however, instating monthly “First Thursday” celebrations that brought more shoppers downtown, and used her experience at the Redevelopment Authority to strategically promote economic growth. Savings and growth combined, the city’s rainy day fund has ballooned from $10,000 when she entered office, to $3 million today.

She has also worked to instill a Tocqueville-style democracy, encouraging citizens to come forward with concerns and requests. Her “Mayor of Your Street” program institutionalizes this spirit, empowering residents to bring hyper-local needs, like potholes and downed street signs, to the attention of the government. In her spare time—hard to believe there is any—she has held workshops that teach people how to become involved in politics.

Despite these successes, it appears likely that Mayor Wong will lose her job today. She is up for reelection, and was trounced in a primary this September. The challenger, Joseph Solomito, is a long-time lawyer and legislator in the town, and derives his support from the old guard that Wong ousted in 2007. They argue that the austerity measures have gone too far; that the library should be opened, and street lights turned back on. After this objection, however, their remaining arguments against Wong are, as the Boston Globe pointed out last week (“Groundbreaking Mayor Losing Favor,” 10/31/11), somewhat more personal than substantive. They say she’s arrogant, a condescending carpetbagger. Some even hint that she in fact lives in another town, and not in the Fitchburg house she owns.

As with everything on this blog, this is not just a tale about local politics, but also one with clear evolutionary roots. To spell this out, however, it is necessary to look at legislators not as the caricatures we call politicians, but as the function they fill for a community. They are chosen, whether democratically or otherwise, and have been vested with the authority to make decisions for the group. In other words, they have been entrusted with the power of legislation and public influence, that they might steer the group towards prosperity.

The key word here is “trust.” Trust is a social emotion. It is not usually based on pragmatic reasoning, nor does it make sense that it would. We decide whether we trust people based on a variety of cues, but we are most persuaded when we believe the other person is just like us, is part of our in-group, and thus can be expected to have the group’s best interests at heart. An outsider selling salvation is nothing but a con-man to this worldview, and it may be difficult to overcome such skepticism, even with results. One of Wong’s harshest critics on the city council, for example, recently stated that, “Once her term ends…she’s not going to stick around this city.” They conveniently ignore the successes that have occurred during her tenure, instead attacking her as an opportunist, an outsider, and a technocrat. As shallow as this rhetoric might seem, it has caught the attention of Fitchburg voters.

Simply put, we do not want to be ruled by people who are not our own. Even if an outsider makes good on promises to transform the community, there’s an inherent distrust. We would rather have our leaders be organic, individuals who have emerged from our own ranks, noted for their intelligence, charisma, and persuasion. In Fitchburg, that means returning to the same folks who were poor enough custodians that they led the city to the brink of bankruptcy. Nonetheless, I suspect that they will prevail in today’s contest. Mayor Wong’s ingenuity and talent are impressive, but they will not measure up to her opponent’s relatively simple appeal of being “one of us.”


About Dan

Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien, PhD, is the Project Manager of the Harvard Boston Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University where he has been a key player in the development of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Both projects bring together academic and city agencies in the development of innovative solutions for the everyday challenges of urban life. Amidst these efforts, his own research focuses on urban social behavior. As an educator, he has concentrated on pedagogical techniques that bring evolutionary theory to classrooms outside the biological sciences.
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