~ The Advocate Asks ~
Editor’s Note: For this week, we talked with Republican State Representative Donald H. Wong, who several weeks ago pulled nomination papers with plans of seeking a seventh two-year term representing residents in the Ninth Essex House District. Precincts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in Saugus make up the core of the district, which also includes parts of Lynn (Ward 1, Precincts 1 and 2) and Wakefield (Precincts 1, 2, 3 and 7). Wong, 70, is a 1970 graduate of Belmont High School. He has lived in Saugus for 47 years. Prior to his election to the State House, he served as chairman of the Saugus Board of Selectmen (2007-2011) and was a member of the Saugus Annual Town Meeting (2005-2007). He is a third-generation Chinese American. In 2010 he, along with Democratic State Representative Tackey Chan (Quincy), were the first Asian Americans elected to the Massachusetts Legislature. Wong and his wife, Jeannie, have three grown children and four granddaughters. He is a businessman and president of Kowloon Group, Inc., which manages the Kowloon Restaurant – a popular Route 1 restaurant owned by three generations of his family at the same location for 70 years. Two years ago, he won a sixth term without facing opposition. Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: A little more than two weeks ago – Feb. 14 – you pulled nomination papers to run for another term as state representative for the Ninth Essex House District seat. And so far, at least as of this week, you are the only candidate who is laying the groundwork for a political campaign in that race. So, what’s your biggest reason for running again?
A: As long as I can bring things to my community and my district, I’m going to do the best I can to continue representing them.
Q: And you have a campaign manager ready to run your reelection?
A: Julie Mitchell will be running my campaign.
Q: So, please tell me about the term you are finishing.
A: It’s been a lot harder over these past two years, because of COVID-19.
Q: So, was it difficult with the State House being closed for almost two years before it recently reopened?
A: No. I was there every day during COVID. I never stopped going to the State House. It was open for the legislators, but not to the public. It was a blessing in disguise because I could sit down with other reps and not be interrupted. A lot of reps faced the same problems that I did.
Q: So, how did things work out?
A: Even during COVID, we did get money for different things for our communities. We worked with the towns and cities. It’s very important to work with your local government, so you can help the people in the community that were hurt the most.
One of the good things that came out of the COVID was outdoor dining. With outside seating, it helped a lot of restaurants survive. Having the additional seats was very beneficial for many restaurants.
Q: So, if you are reelected to a seventh term, what will be the major business on your plate?
A: Working with local governments in my district to see that their needs are met. A major thing: The state would like to provide more money for local government for the roads – Chapter 90 money; and education – Chapter 70 money.
Q: So, what about in Saugus?
A: I’ve talked with some of the local officials to find out what their needs are. I’ve had discussions with some of the people in the Police and Fire Departments about their needs, and in the American Legion about what the veterans’ needs are.
Q: Two years ago you didn’t have an opponent, and this year an opponent hasn’t surfaced yet. So, this being an election year, is it going to be difficult to get anything done?
A: Anybody who has an opponent in the Legislature this year is facing the same situation. They have to campaign to get reelected. And that’s going to take away from the legislative work they are doing.
Q: So, would you prefer to run for reelection without an opponent?
A: If you don’t have an opponent, as a state rep, you are going to have more time to work within your district and get things done. I hope I don’t have an opponent so I can work harder and have more time for the people in my district.
Q: Have you received any indication whether you will get an opponent this year?
A: You never know. If I get an opponent, I will try to let my record show how I can get things done.
Q: Will the departure of Gov. Charlie Baker, a fellow Republican who has decided not to seek another term, affect your situation?
A: No. Whoever gets elected governor, I will work with. On Beacon Hill, it’s all about give and take. Since the day I started here, I never played party lines. I work with everyone. And, it really doesn’t matter what committees they put me on because of the friends I’ve made – not just in my party but across the aisle. That’s how I’ve been able to get things done.
And there’s a big difference between the federal [Congress] and the state government [the Massachusetts Legislature]. The one thing we have in common is we all live in Massachusetts and we get to work on the same problems. In Washington, they don’t get the luxury of sitting down and working with each other as much.
Q: So, your workload this year will be determined by whether or not you have an opponent.
A: Anyone’s workload. If they have an opponent, they have to spend more time on their campaign.
Q: So, do you think much will happen in the state legislature this year?
A: We’ll still be working hard because of the budget, so I will be talking with local government people in my district about their particular needs and try to get additional funding for them in the state budget.
Q: Do you see anything in the works as far as improvements on Route 1 go?
A: I’ve also worked on issues related to Route 1. The year I got elected, we did water and sewer improvements on Route 1, and we’re not getting any more water pipe breaks. And during the last couple of years, we’ve paved all of Route 1.
Q: What about improving traffic flow on Route 1?
A: We’re working with the North Shore legislative delegation in trying to improve public transportation all the way to Salem. If there is more use of public transportation, you’re going to get less traffic on Route 1.
Q: And what about “the Jug Handle” on Route 1 North in Peabody that allows cars to turn around and head south or get on Route 128?
A: I’m working with other reps to try to see what we can do with it. Maybe there’s some technology we can use to improve it. We’re trying to get more input from other reps on Route 1.
Q: As far as public transportation, would that include a commuter rail stop closer to or in Saugus? Or a commuter bus that hooks up directly to a train station?
A: We’ve been talking with the Department of Transportation and the MBTA. We’re looking at different possibilities.
Q: One of the issues that’s come out of the Board of Health’s Wheelabrator Subcommittee is whether to close the ash landfill near the trash incinerator or expand the ash landfill. Do you have any thoughts about that?
A: I haven’t been involved because that’s a local issue. I will leave it up to the committee and the town. And whatever they decide, I will try to help them out.
Q: Recently, the town manager and selectmen have talked about the need to find new ways of generating revenue for the town. Do you have any thoughts on that?
A: Again, it’s a local issue. Whatever they decide, I will try to do what I can to make it possible. It’s hard for the state to tell the local government how to raise money.
Q: What do you see as the biggest issue facing Saugus that you could help out on?
A: On the state level, that would be to see if we can get more Chapter 90 money for the roads.
Q: So, what are some of the things you have helped to accomplish for Saugus that you are proud of?
A: Getting money for the lighting at the street crossings. Last year we got $50,000, which paid for three street crossing signs. People wanted more, so next year there will be $100,000. I’ve already got that, so we could be getting six more flashing signs for street crossings, depending on the costs of each one. It’s things like that – that the state can do to help local governments.
Another thing that I’ve been working on is the Kasabuski Rink. I’ve been working with the DCR [state Department of Conservation & Recreation], and we finally got the skating rink open with new management, and they put $6.5 million into the skating rink. It’s been a long time coming, but we finally got it. A lot of people are using the facility now. They’ve even got an electric Zamboni machine. Before, it was diesel, which wasn’t very good for the public.
Q: Some state legislators make passing legislation their top priority. There are others that emphasize local constituent service. And then there are other legislators that pride themselves on a blend of both. What kind of legislator do you see yourself as?
A: I have passed bills for people in my district. And here’s one that is constituent service and passing a bill at the same time: Several years ago I had a constituent who lost his son in combat overseas. He had Gold Star plates on his vehicle. And when he went to renew the plates, the Registry of Motor Vehicles took them away because he had them on a commercial vehicle. I wrote up a bill that was signed into law which allowed the constituent to have Gold Star plates on his commercial vehicle as long as there was no advertising of the business on the vehicle, so he was able to get his Gold Star plates back.
Q: What is your greatest accomplishment since being in the Legislature?
A: That’s hard to say because there are so many things: Route 1 getting paved, the schools getting archery and robotics. I still think that getting all the water and sewer pipes replaced on Route 1 and then getting it paved was great for Route 1 and the town. I’ve done a lot of work for the veterans. And I’ve worked to help public safety in Saugus – both the Police and the Fire Departments. This year with the Fire Department, I got them money to get new walkie-talkies. I also got money so the Police Department could get walkie-talkies. And I helped get $25,000 for a new animal control officer’s car. Two years ago, I worked with other representatives and officials from Taiwan [ROC or the Republic of China] in getting free masks distributed among communities throughout Massachusetts.
Q: So, how old are you now?
A: I turned 70 in January.
Q: So, how long do you want to continue being the state rep from Saugus?
A: As long as I can make a difference for my community, I will continue to serve. Our parents are the ones who instilled in us “Give back to the community” by working in government and also in our business – by giving back to the community.
Q: So, 10 years from now – if you are still in good health and still enjoy public service and keep getting reelected – can we expect to see you as the state rep from Saugus?
A: I don’t see myself still doing this 10 years from now. As legislators, we have in our heart to work for the good of the community. But as local officials, we sacrifice a lot. Our families sacrifice a lot.
We have a family business and fortunately my siblings allow me to do what I’m doing – my three brothers and two sisters. There’s six of us, and we’re all involved.
Q: And you still have your mom, and is she still involved in the family business?
A: My mom is 94 years. She doesn’t come to the restaurant any more – only on special occasions.