By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — In office for barely a week, Mayor Ken Gray has begun to draw criticism from political opponents in town, particularly regarding his decision to tap a 19-year-old college sophomore as his interim chief of staff.
Earlier this week, Gray named Evan Kenney of Wakefield to his staff following the abrupt departure of Mayor Thatcher Kezer’s chief of staff, Eric Gregoire. Faced with the prospect of taking office with no staff support, Gray said he reached out to Kenney and asked if he could come aboard on short notice.
“I needed to get someone in here quickly,” Gray said Monday. “Evan was available, he’s qualified and competent, so I’m going to give him a whack at this thing.”
Kenney is a rising and somewhat controversial star in the state Republican party. In 2012, he became a central player in a brouhaha that erupted over the nomination of Mitt Romney at the GOP convention. His efforts to buck the party’s establishment won him significant attention, culminating in a lengthy interview on the nationally televised “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC.
The decision to hire him has raised eyebrows, particularly among those who were opponents of Gray during the election. They took to Facebook to criticize Gray’s decision, and Kenney in particular for his age and for his conservative political views — among them a provocative statement Kenney released after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings advocating for arming teachers.
Phil Cronin, an Amesbury resident and Democratic political consultant, posted an essay written by Kenney in the days following the Newtown tragedy on the Support Amesbury Schools, Support Amesbury Kids! Facebook group, which was a popular gathering place for Kezer supporters during this past election.
In his essay, Kenney advocated for teachers to be empowered to carry concealed firearms in schools in order to deter future school shootings and to protect students in case a gunman does appear. The essay prompted an outcry from critics who criticized Kenney’s line of reasoning and wondered aloud whether Gray feels the same.
“Do we seriously have a 19-year-old who wrote a letter calling for teachers to bring firearms to schools operating as our Chief of Staff?” asked Jen Meagher, one of the moderators of the ‘Support Amesbury Schools, Support Amesbury Kids!’ group. “Mr. Gray is not off to a great start.”
“Mayor Gray ran on the notion of ‘healing’ Amesbury,” wrote Rebecca Jordan, a newly elected member of the Library Board of Trustees who had helped run Kezer’s election campaigns in the past. “Hiring a teenager with extreme and controversial opinions is a first step in the wrong direction.”
“For someone who was supposed to bring private sector experience to the office, this is very troubling,” Cronin said. “This is not Student Government Day, this is not Bring Your Child to Work Day, this is our community, and we now have two people with zero municipal experience running things.”
Kenney brushed off the criticism, saying he hadn’t seen the comments himself and that so far all of his interactions with the Amesbury public have been positive. As far as the essay goes, he said that since joining the Wakefield School Committee last year, his political views have evolved and he’s learned to take a more pragmatic approach to government, particularly at the local level.
“I’ve learned that politics are a distraction from the things that really matter,” Kenney said. “Politics play no role in educating our children, paving our roads and keeping our city safe. I’m really excited that I got involved when I was in high school, I’ve always had this passion for making a difference, and that’s what led me to run for School Committee. I’ve learned a lot since then.”
Gray told The Daily News he was not available yesterday to comment.
In his current role as interim chief of staff, Kenney will earn about $1,000 a week. It’s not clear at this point how long he will stay on the job in Amesbury. His weekly pay is $115 less than what Gregoire was budgeted to earn this year, according to the FY14 city budget. Gregoire was 23 when Kezer hired him in 2012.
Kenney is widely recognized as a rising star in the state Republican Party and has already amassed a substantial political resume despite being only a sophomore in college.
Kenney is currently a member of the Wakefield School Committee, having first won election this past April. He finished second overall in the voting, beating out several established committee members in the process, and will serve a three-year term set to end in 2016.
He also made headlines after he successfully ran for a spot in the Republican National Convention in the spring of 2012. Despite the fact that he was still a senior in high school at the time, Kenney was able to organize a sizable group of supporters and defeated former gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker in a major upset.
Following his victory, however, Kenney learned a hard lesson in partisan politics after the state Republican Party leadership tried to force him out of his seat as an alternate delegate due to his support of Ron Paul so that they could give his seat to someone who had publicly backed Mitt Romney.
In the days that followed, Kenney appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show” and took the party’s leadership to task, accusing a small group of the party’s leadership of putting their own interests ahead of the party.
“These are only a few corrupt power brokers in the leadership who want to keep the party to themselves,” Kenney told Maddow.
Kenney wound up keeping his seat after receiving an outpouring of support in the media, and also from Baker, who refused to take his seat. Having to face down his own party’s leadership in the public eye also helped prepare Kenney for another challenge that politicians have to deal with far more frequently, fending off attacks from the other side.
He also drew praise from Wakefield Town Administrator Stephen Maio, who called him an invaluable asset to the town who takes time to gather data and listen to all the facts before making decisions on key issues.
“You probably won’t find a more respectful person,” Maio said. “He’s very respectful of everyone, from the custodian to the chief of police. He’s very polished in how he speaks with people.”