By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Taxes have dominated the political narrative in Amesbury for years, but now a group of residents and a slate of political candidates have come together hoping to change the conversation.
District 6 City Council candidate Jonathan Sherwood, his wife, Amy, and several other like-minded residents recently launched the “I Am Pro Amesbury” campaign, which they say aims to promote a more positive view of the city while affirming that Amesbury is moving in the right direction.
The effort has taken on a political tone. A slate of closely aligned candidates in the Nov. 5 election have embraced it as a theme and plan to host a campaign rally this weekend, an unusual phenomenon in local elections.
“I think forever, when you tell someone you’re from Amesbury, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, the taxes!’ And when you live here, and you make it your home, you want to talk about some of the other things in the community,” said Amy Sherwood. “While taxes are an issue — each of us has to pay our tax bill — we really wanted to have some conversations about other things.”
The campaign started on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and since its inception, several public officials have attached themselves to the group, including Mayor Thatcher Kezer, city councilors Allen Neale, Bob Lavoie, Bob Gilday, Anne Ferguson, Jim Kelcourse and District 2 candidate Mary Chatigny.
For the most part, the Pro Amesbury roster constitutes a “who’s who” of residents and officials who support Kezer’s campaign. Despite the similarity in ideals, Sherwood said Kezer had no involvement in the group’s formation, and that the founders largely didn’t even know each other before the campaign season started.
When reached for comment, Kezer reiterated that he wasn’t a part of the group’s formation, but said he signed on immediately when he heard about the message the group is hoping to promote.
“I think the main distinction is you can either look at our community as the glass half-full, or the glass half-empty,” Kezer said. “We on the Pro Amesbury say our glass is more than half-full, in regards to the great quality of life assets we have in this community, and that’s what we want to focus on.”
The group has been distributing “I Am Pro Amesbury” lapel stickers, and will be holding a rally in Market Square on Sunday at 11:30 a.m., which will feature remarks by Kezer and candidates who support his bid for office, as well as a musical performance by Merrimac Hat Company.
One aspect of the group that has become a point of contention is its name, with some residents and candidates for office who have focused on addressing the city’s taxes arguing that they’re being painted as “anti-Amesbury” for disagreeing with the Pro Amesbury premise.
Dave Haraske, who is Sherwood’s challenger in the race for District 6 city councilor, said he feels the initiative is perfectly fine as a campaign platform, but he disagrees with the notion that people who focus on taxes have a negative view of the city.
“The implication is that ‘I’m pro Amesbury, and if you’re not with us politically, then you’re anti-Amesbury,’” Haraske said. “And that’s not true. We’re all pro Amesbury, we just all have different visions of how we want to fix our problems.”
Haraske added that he feels acknowledging the city’s tax problem and striving to address it is pro Amesbury, because people who want to fix the city’s problems ultimately want the city to improve.
Haraske is one of several candidates who are politically aligned with mayoral candidate Ken Gray. Others who have aligned themselves with Gray include council at-large candidates Donna McClure and Eric Bezanson, Paul Sickorez in District 1 and Erin Butt in District 5. The candidates have not created a binding identity similar to “I Am Pro Amesbury”; however, most have been active participants in a Facebook group called “Amesbury Citizens for Lower Taxes.”
Amy Sherwood said nobody in her group is implying that anyone is anti-Amesbury, and the name of the group was actually inspired by Pro Portsmouth, an organization that has existed in Portsmouth, N.H., since the late 1970s and is responsible for putting on annual celebrations like Market Square Day and Children’s Day.
“That slogan really resonated with me, and it certainly did great things for Portsmouth,” Sherwood said. “I think for us, it was something that said ‘I am for Amesbury.’”
Sherwood acknowledged that the group could be looked at as a political party, but she hopes it can become much more. For now the plan is to support affiliated candidates while highlighting businesses and events happening in town, and after the election she said the group would discuss what the next step would be.
“We really want to see Amesbury succeed, and that is probably our biggest wish for this town,” Sherwood said. “I don’t know what this will be in the future, but I hope we can talk about more than taxes around here.”