Published in the September 24, 2018 edition.
WAKEFIELD — The two men running to represent half of Wakefield on Beacon Hill batted around several issues during a televised forum last week, staking their ground as the November 6 general election approaches.
Incumbent state Representative Donald H. Wong, the Saugus Republican, squared off Wednesday at the Galvin Middle School’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium against Democratic challenger Matthew Crescenzo, a U.S. Army veteran now earning a degree at Salem State.
The candidates’ forum, produced by WCAT, saw Crescenzo go on the attack several times against the third term incumbent, saying, for example, that the 9th Essex District’s main artery — Route 1 — is in horrible shape and needs much more economic diversity, as does the rest of the area.
“There are too many pizza places and beauty salons” here, Crescenzo said.
One way to bring “attractive development” to the area, and to Route 1 specifically, is to “clean it up,” Crescenzo continued.
Wong is a Route 1 businessman — he and his family own the Kowloon Restaurant in Saugus — and he feels local and state governments need to work together in a much more coordinated way to make sure future development makes sense. He explained, for example, that five apartment developments are planned for Route 1, which will mean more cars and more kids going to already-overburdened schools in the district.
Infrastructure changes, at the very least, will be needed to handle the additional residents, Wong said.
At a few points during the hour-long forum, Crescenzo talked about leadership. He exhibited plenty of it in the service, Crescenzo said, while Wong displays very little of it at the Statehouse on behalf of residents of the 9th Essex District.
Both candidates said they supported dropping the state sales tax back to 5 percent. “I am not in favor of higher taxes,” Crescenzo said. Living in Massachusetts is “too expensive” as it is. He added, “We need to find better ways to protect the working class.”
Wong said the more money residents have in their pockets, the better. “By reducing (the state sales tax), residents would have a choice about what to do with their money.”
The 9th Essex hopefuls were asked about the national opioid addiction crisis and how it could be dealt with locally. Crescenzo said there have been about 350 overdose deaths in Lynn, Saugus and Wakefield over the last few years, and that states’ attorneys general must be given greater flexibility in going after opioid drug manufacturers. Also, insurance companies should be made to cover in-treatment options for a longer period of time, educating young people on the dangers of addiction needs to step up and addiction should be seen as a mental health issue, not a criminal one.
Wong said a law aimed at fighting the opioid addiction epidemic was passed in the recently ended legislative session that will provide better access to medication, address the high rate of addiction and substance abuse, and will give more comprehensive in-treatment for addiction before people leave hospitals.
Wong defended his work on behalf of the district’s schoolchildren and teachers. He said that the state’s educational aid line item — called Chapter 70 — has been increased each year he has been in the state House of Representatives. “But there is more to do,” he said, using as an example a more focused move to bring teachers up-to-date with technology.
Crescenzo, a product of the Saugus public schools, said a generation has passed since the passage of the Education Reform Law in 1993, and it is beyond time to get a handle on how education funds are distributed by the state to its cities and towns.
“The Legislature had a chance to overhaul (an education funding formula in this last session) and it failed. How much longer do kids have to wait? I know teachers who are using GoFundMe sites to help run their classrooms,” Crescenzo said.
The candidates were asked about their stances on a couple of ballot questions before the voters November 6.
Wong said he would vote no on Question 1, which would limit the number of patients a hospital nurse could treat, and would penalize facilities for not adhering to the rules. “This is not good for the patient or the nurses,” Wong said.
Crescenzo would vote yes on Question 1, he said, because there have been too many cases of increased medical complications, errors and the need for people to keep checking into hospitals because their care wasn’t adequate. He said “64 percent of nurses say more get injured” because hospitals are under-staffed.
Both candidates also said they would vote yes to keep a law in place prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations, including public restrooms and locker rooms. A no vote would repeal the law.
Crescenzo said, “Everyone in Massachusetts needs to feel protected,” regardless of their gender.
Wong said there has not been “one invasion of privacy” instance since the law went into effect, which many opponents claimed would happen.
The candidates were asked if Massachusetts should become a “sanctuary state,” limiting its cooperation with the national government’s effort to enforce immigration law.
Both said no. Crescenzo offered that this is not something state government should get involved with. Wong, saying he is concerned about higher crime, explained that individual cities and towns can make such declarations on their own if they desire.
Route 1 returned as a topic when the hopefuls were asked what the biggest problem seemed to be for district constituents. Crescenzo said leaders need to explore new ways to cut down on Route 1 traffic and encourage transit-oriented development.
Wong said Route 1 is “a problem now and in the future. We need the local and federal governments working together to (more thoroughly) examine what is put on Route 1” before it actually occurs.
Route 1 and how development impacts the district’s schools are the top priorities of residents Wong has spoken with as he campaigns. He said planners need to look at building bigger schools and further examine how housing construction “overcrowds new schools before they’re even done.”
Crescenzo said a top priority must be a more fair way to fund educational aid from the state. The district, he said, “is a net-giver” when it comes to how much it costs to educate a student and how much of that the state provides.
Both candidates felt more incentives should be given to businesses to encourage them to be more environmentally friendly. Wong explained that more could be done to educate people on recycling, for instance. He said people are recycling the wrong items that actually end up costing towns money.
The state representative hopefuls also talked of incentives to push for cleaner energy and electric vehicle fleets.
On the need for more affordable housing in the district, Wong said communities should make it easier for people to create in-law apartments in their homes “because this would cost the state less money” as far as assisted care and housing go.
Crescenzo said communities must do everything they can to reach the 10 percent threshold of affordable housing units. He also suggested giving tax breaks to those who can’t afford rising costs of living.
“We need to be more vocal at the Statehouse,” Crescenzo exclaimed. “Our leaders are not getting the job done.”
Wong and Crescenzo had divergent views on economic stimulation in the 9th Essex District, and how to keep good companies here.
Wong said the answer lies in tax incentives, like the ones the state gave to General Electric. Wong said he worked to bring a Chinese company to Massachusetts, where it is currently building trains in Springfield.
Crescenzo countered, “If it’s not helping our district, you’re not doing your job.” He went on to say that no business will come to the area “if you have to sit in traffic for an hour to go a half mile” or if you have to look at some of the storefronts on Route 1.
Asked how the district would benefit from their election to office, the candidates stuck to their scripts. Crescenzo said that in the military, he was “personally responsible” to those in his unit and had experience making “split second decisions” with people’s lives on the line.
Wong talked about how he was raised to give back to the community, how he has served as an elected member of Saugus’ Town Meeting and for eight years as the district’s state representative. “ I will always give back and look to the future,” he said.
At the end, the candidates had a chance for some final thoughts.
Crescenzo said this election is about “status quo versus change.” He said he is experienced enough in making tough decisions to know when things aren’t working, which he said they are not for the people of the district. He said he is frustrated at “being ignored” by government and of not knowing where the state is spending its money. Transparency at the Statehouse, he said, needs to improve in big way.
Wong talked about some of the things the Legislature has done while he’s been a member, like increasing education funding, okaying paid family leave and creating an annual sales tax holiday, dealing with the opioid crisis, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, protecting youth from drug addiction and increasing police training funds.
He said, “You are my eyes and ears. I need your input to help this district.”