THE ADVOCATE ASKS: An interview with State Rep. Donald Wong on his campaign for a fifth two-year term representing Saugus on Beacon Hill
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with State Rep. Donald Wong, who seeks his fifth two-year term in the Ninth Essex District House seat. 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 and Wakefield. Wong, 66, is a 1970 graduate of Belmont High School. He has lived in Saugus for 43 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 and state Rep. Tackey Chan (D-Quincy) were the first Asian Americans elected to the state Legislature. Wong and his wife, Jeannie, have three grown children and four granddaughters. He is a businessman and president of Mandarin House, Inc., which manages the Kowloon Restaurant, a popular Route 1 restaurant owned by three generations of his family at the same location for 68 years. Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: As you are finishing your fourth term on Beacon Hill as a state representative, looking back, what are the things you are most proud of? Things that you have accomplished in the Legislature?
A: There are a few things. First of all, when I first got in, I got the state to put new water and sewage lines on Route 1, because every winter before that we would have water main breaks in the winter and it would back up all of Route 1. The other thing that I am most proud, that I did this year. … I worked very hard to get a bill passed so that the firefighters who got cancer on the job didn’t have to use their sick leave. That’s important to me because I think that firefighters while they are working on the job – and if they get cancer…. It’s hard enough to deal with cancer without them having to think about where their money is going to come from and if they use up all of their sick leave when they are trying to get better; you put worries on the whole family – not just the firefighter. So, I’m very blessed that I had a lot of reps and senators all working together to get this passed, because this bill has been up there for four or five years, and I worked very hard to get it out of third reading this year and get it passed.
Q: And this is one of the pieces of legislation where you got a pen from the governor’s bill-signing ceremony?
A: Yes, and another one is the Veterans Relief Fund, for which I have another pen.
Q: How many pens do you have?
A: Maybe half a dozen – for bills that I had sponsored or brought out. The one with the Veterans Relief Fund – which now when you pay your state or excise tax, towns and cities can adopt this bill and you can donate more money to the Veterans Relief, and that passed two years ago. But I started first with Wakefield to have it in January 2015, and they started collecting money from residents who wanted to donate, and in the winter of that year, a veteran had an oil burner go on him, and this Veterans Relief Fund paid for the whole oil burner for him: the installation and everything. I think this bill was very important because some money collected by each town and city stayed in the town and city, where if you were trying to get monies from the state or federal government, they might take too long. Especially with an oil burner going on you in the winter, you need it right away. The Veterans Council in Wakefield helped pay for it with all the donations.
Q: As you look ahead, if reelected to a fifth term, what would be your main legislative agenda for people in Saugus? I know you also represent people in Lynn and Wakefield, but what’s your agenda for Saugus?
A: I would like to work on education. I know we are getting a new High School and Middle School that’s going to be great. But in all three communities, there’s more that we can do for education – and also on health care – that’s another thing where we should be working together statewide because I think that prescription drugs right now are too expensive. Why should the same drug in Canada be so cheap compared to what people are paying here?
And, again, we have to look after the veterans and seniors. I want to see how we can help the veterans coming back because I think the suicide rate for veterans coming back is much higher than veterans being killed overseas. When you see a veteran who fights for us come back and you find out there’s not enough help for him or her to cope with what they saw over there and then they commit suicide, it’s just not right. I saw one place where it said that the U.S. military deaths since 1999 is 5,273, and veterans’ suicides since 1999 is 128,480. We’re having more suicides than people killed overseas.
Q: So that’s high on your agenda?
A: Yes. Because I think a person who risks his or her life overseas should be taken care of when they come back.
Q: Let’s talk about Route 1. What’s your latest take on what needs to be done and what you plan to do in the next term to improve the situation on Route 1?
A: I’ve been hitting some roadblocks over there. I have been trying to get them to shut down the Jughandle and trying to have them widen Copeland Circle. Copeland Circle is getting hot because of EPA and because of the wetlands there. So, it’s an ongoing battle and I’ve talked to the DOT, and they say they need the Jughandle for the traffic. I still am trying to negotiate with them. I think because of the Jughandle we are having more traffic. I think what we should be doing is maybe carpooling more. When I go to work sometimes, I see so many cars with only one person in them. If we could get more carpooling, there would be less traffic, and if we could upgrade public transportation, people would be using public transportation more. But this is also education – we have to educate the people, and I think maybe if we talk to businesses in town and elsewhere – if they can offset their hours for opening: instead of opening at 8, maybe they open at 9. Some people open at 8, some at 9 – now you are cutting the traffic down. But again, this education, and we have to work together with businesses and local towns and cities to get this done. And as we are working with the MBTA, maybe we can get them to do better time schedules and make it affordable for people to use it.
Q: Do you think there’s room for a roundtable or public forum to get people talking about Route 1?
A: I think there is, but I think we first half to straighten out what we have with the MBTA: to fix up some of the misuse or inefficiencies; or maybe modernize part of it, and then we can look at time schedules, too, because we had a problem in Wakefield where they were going to shut down the 5:00 return trip. The state delegation in Wakefield went and talked to the MBTA and Mass. Transit, and we got enough people to work with us, so they didn’t close the 5:00 return trip. So, I think that working with each town and city and coming up with a compromise and also telling the transportation officials what we see as priority needs so they can maybe rearrange their schedules.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on Wheelabrator – the sale?
A: When I first heard about it, I did call Wheelabrator, and I’m trying to set up a meeting with the new people that bought it and see how we can work together, hopefully, for the neighborhood, so they can work with us and be good neighbors.
Q: Do you have any concerns about the new ownership?
A: I don’t want to say anything until I sit down and talk to them because I don’t want to have prejudgements until I sit down and talk to them and get their side of the story of what they are going to do, and we will go from there.
Q: What about now, with the town suing Wheelabrator? Do you have any position, one way or another on this?
A: I’m trying to stay out of it and be neutral, because I want to be able to negotiate with them, and, again, it’s hard to negotiate if you have already made prejudgements. I stayed out of it and waited to see the judgement of the state. As for myself, I look at the judgement of the state. I didn’t want to do anything like suing them before the judgement of the state because we’re wasting our money. Now the state is saying that they haven’t done anything wrong. I would like to sit down with the state and the Environmental Committee and talk to them and see where we can go from here, and again, talk with Wheelabrator and the new owners and say, “How can we fix this?”
Q: Are you satisfied with the state review?
A: I’m not too sure how they made all of the judgements. I’d really like to sit down with them and discuss with them why they voted one way or another. I think that will be coming in the near future if I’m reelected.
Q: During your four terms, do you think Wheelabrator has been a good neighbor or do you have some concerns?
A: It’s hard because sometimes you hear things from the residents and sometimes you hear things from Wheelabrator. Some are rumors, and you don’t know what’s true and what’s not. So, I think that Wheelabrator has helped and donated a lot to the community, but at the same time, we have to look at whether they are hurting the health of the people who living here, and we’ve got to look at everything, not just Wheelabrator, but also GE.
Q: You’re talking about the history of the land down there, not just Wheelabrator.
A: Yes. The landfill and the dumping grounds next to it. And you don’t know what’s in the water down there, or what’s leaking into the water, and I’m not blaming GE, but if you look at GE property, a lot of the property has had to be sealed because it’s so toxic. We have to look at everything. We also have to look at maybe the air flights, how the planes are coming over; the exhausts or leaving fumes from the exhausts. It’s difficult to say one or the other, because there are so many factors.
Q: Do you know anybody who you believe had health issues or died of cancer …
A: I’ve heard that there are families that have had cancer or MS down there, and I feel for them, but I’m not too sure what is the cause, because also you have powerlines up there that are above ground, and we’ve heard that power lines are not good for people, and that could be some of the cause. There are so many things that could be causing it [cancer]. I think we have to look at everything that’s involved.
Q: People say, and I want you to hope people would perceive you, but some people say, “Donald Wong is pro-Wheelabrator, and he’s not listening to the people at a time when virtually all of the town boards are anti-Wheelabrator.” What do you say to those people?
A: I listen to a lot of my constituents, and when there was a hearing, I had more people email me and writing me that were pro-Wheelabrator than against Wheelabrator. So, if I’m supposed to be doing what my constituents want me to do, I would have went 100 percent pro-Wheelabrator, but because I believe in being neutral and being fair, I don’t want to be considered pro or con.
Q: Anything else that you want to say about that?
A: Hopefully, that in the future, with a new company that is buying it [Wheelabrator], I would like to have the local town and the state sit down and talk with them. I don’t know how much the local town officials have sat down and talked with Wheelabrator, and I think that before we go through lawsuits (and the only ones who are going to make money are the lawyers), I think that we should really have a good meeting with town officials, state officials and whoever the new owners of Wheelabrator are and discuss what we see as a problem and see how we can work together to negotiate and get things done.
Q: I guess by working together is the only way you are going to get a solution to the Route 1 problem, right?
A: Yes, and it’s not just my district. It’s all up and down Route 1 – Peabody and all the way up – and that’s what we have to do. I’m very glad that I have a good rapport with most of the state reps and senators, and hopefully, we can work on different projects.
Q: You said you have, like, six pens from the bill-signing ceremonies, so what about them?
A: The one I’m proud of the most is the Veterans Relief Fund, because that was my bill. That’s when you pay your real estate and excise tax, you can donate more money to Veterans Relief Fund. It’s been effective in Wakefield. The reason I went with this bill is that it’s a local bill, so all of the money that’s collected stays local in the towns or cities.
Q: Has Saugus used it?
A: I don’t know if they have used it yet, but I know they are collecting it, because I have been donating into it. I hope they model it like Wakefield is doing. It’s a separate account, and the Veterans Council usually okays where the money goes, and I know that there is one that they’re looking at now – a veteran with an electric wheelchair – and they might be looking at buying batteries for it. So I hope that the Veterans Council will look at it, and maybe they can get it done for them.
Q: Anything else that you would like to talk about – what you hope to accomplish if reelected for a fifth term?
A: The main thing is the health care that I was talking about; transportation – Route 1 and public transportation; and of course, helping veterans, again, and education. Those are things that we have to work on. I can’t wait to have the election. If I am fortunate enough to get reelected, I will start on it right away and start pushing bills in February, because we happen to be sworn in again Jan. 2, but elected on Nov. 6, I will start right away on the work to file for new bills. Of course, they can’t be filed until after our swearing-in.
Q: What’s the best book you read recently or within the past year?
A: I just read a book for the fourth graders in Wakefield. The story behind it is good. The name of the book is “What Do You Do With an Idea?” [By Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom]. It’s a children’s book that I think everyone should read. If you have an idea, go with the idea. Not everyone is going to agree with your idea. Some people might laugh at your idea, but if you really believe in that idea, it will grow, and hopefully, you will bring it out and be successful. Because I believe in this country – that if you work hard, the American Dream is still there.