Q&A with Setti Warren: Can a Progressive Beat America’s Most Popular Governor?

The Newton mayor is calling for single-payer health care and free tuition for public colleges. Will the Bay State bite?

Photo via Setti Warren

Two-term Newton mayor Setti Warren formally launched his bid for governor over the weekend, declaring that economic inequality is the “defining issue of our generation.” If the Iraq War veteran can emerge from the Democratic field, he’ll face stiff competition from Gov. Charlie Baker, whose approval rating hovers comfortably in the 70s. Warren has already begun hammering the Republican incumbent on transportation, advocating for the North-South Rail Link and a bullet train between Boston and Springfield—two projects the Baker administration has shown little love.

I spoke with Warren via phone Monday and asked just what these progressive proposals might look like, as well as what the Duke told him at his block party.

What’s the feedback been since you announced your bid over the weekend?

It feels great. I was really pleased with the number of people that were here at my house—around 500 people from all across the state of Massachusetts, of different regions, backgrounds—to launch. It was a great beginning.

You mentioned single-payer health care and free tuition for public colleges and universities—two marquee progressive policy proposals—when you announced your candidacy. Why is now the time for a progressive agenda in Massachusetts?

Traveling around the state over the past several months, it’s very clear that people and communities are falling behind. It’s also clear that people are working incredibly hard out there, some with two jobs, three jobs, and they just can’t afford the cost of living—things like education across the board, health care. The issue of economic inequality is the issue of our time. This is a generational movement. Are we going to be honest and direct and have the courage to work together, come together, and make an investment in people so that we provide that generational foundational opportunity?

How do you figure a progressive can win against, according to some polls, the most popular governor in America?

Here’s the deal. A lot of smart political people say that. I’m a political leader that does not put my finger in the wind to make a decision. That is not what we need right now. When I came home from Iraq to raise my family after my military deployment, a lot of smart political people told me I shouldn’t run for mayor, I couldn’t win, it wasn’t my time. We ran. We won. A lot of smart political people told me not to put a tax increase ballot question on the ballot in my reelection year when I ran for reelection in Newton in 2013. I knew we needed to do it for schools and public safety and infrastructure. I did it. A lot of people told me to wait until after my reelection to do it. I did it. We won those ballot questions, and I won my reelection later on that year.

When I hear from the people of this state, and I’ve been to every region, I hear the crushing debt that students are taking on. I hear the choices have to meet in order to get accessible, affordable health care. It’s clear to me, not only to do I feel strongly about running, but we put in place free public college and single payer health care. These are important right now. And that’s why I’m running. That’s what this campaign is about for me. I think about my own family; my dad was in the military, grandfather was a veteran of Word War II, Battle of the Bulge. Because of my dad’s military service, he purchased a home where I grew up with my two sisters. I live today with my wife and two children with GI Bill benefits. We need to make that generational investment now, which is why I’m running.

So how do you plan to pay for them, especially since revenue is increasingly hard to come by nowadays?

Well we have to be clear and transparent about where we’re spending money now. We have to look closely at things like tax exemptions, the special interests, close those loopholes, and other places where we’re spending that don’t deliver outcomes for people. And at the same time, we have to be honest about revenue. We have to raise revenue. It’s why I support the “fair share” tax amendment. People making $20,000 a week can afford to pay a little bit more in taxes that will go toward education and transportation. We have to be honest and transparent about the fact that we need to do both—look at where we’re spending money, how we’re spending money, as well as raising revenue.

Speaking of transportation, what’s at the top of your to-do list for fixing the MBTA?

It’s really clear that the T is inadequate and under-resourced. When you look at the traffic jams across this region, it is the result of an inadequate, inefficient system. We’ve got to ensure we’re funding new cars like the Green Line. We’ve got to make sure we’re increasing and improving service on the commuter rail. We have to go beyond the T, though.

We know that, beyond the range of the T, when you get beyond Greater Boston, there are practically nonexistent regional transportation networks. We need to build a bullet train—high-speed rail from Boston to Springfield. Sen. Eric Lesser has proposed that, and unfortunately, Gov. Baker vetoed the study for that in the last year. We’ve got to ensure that we’ve got South Coast Rail. We’ve got to make sure we put something in place called the North-South Rail Link. And we’ve got to build off those infrastructure investments. We’ve got to build regional transportation networks that meet people’s needs where they live, across the state. If we’re not being honest and direct about that, we will continue to grow economic inequality, and not provide a foundation of opportunity for people in the Commonwealth.

Such a large factor in economic inequality is the lack of affordable housing. Has the state done enough to confront the housing crisis? What would you do differently?

The state is not, actually, addressing affordable housing. We know we have a housing crisis here in Massachusetts. We’re not building enough moderate and affordable units for people of all ages and backgrounds in our region. We need a strategy that builds additional units that will include subsidies to help build those units. We will need to ensure we enact zoning changes in cooperation with cities to grow units as well, and we need to put good policies in place that will grow units, that are region-specific. So the answer is, we need to do all three, and we’re not doing enough.

If elected, in the event of the first big snowstorm, would you wear the FEMA vest?

[laughs] So I was a FEMA director. Sure, I’d be able to do it. I was a regional director for FEMA, for New England. I love first responders, I love emergency management, so I’d be able to.

Former Gov. Mike Dukakis was spotted at your campaign kickoff. Did he share any advice with you?

Yes. He believes—and he’ll tell you this, if you get him on the phone—the key to this is going directly to the people, and building the biggest grassroots campaign in Massachusetts history begins when talking directly to people and making the case about the issue of the day, which is economic inequality. So I embrace that, and we will do it.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.