BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Mayor Donna Holaday and challenger Dick Sullivan Jr. took the two top spots in yesterday’s preliminary mayoral election, advancing them to the city’s general election on Nov. 5.
The unofficial count was Holaday 1,496, City Councilor Sullivan 1,355 and City Councilor Greg Earls 1,302. Holaday secured 36 percent of the vote, compared to 33 percent for Sullivan and 31 percent for Earls.
“I am very pleased with the result,” said Holaday, who is seeking her third term. “There were two city councilors in the race, and our whole team worked together well to prepare.
“There are many issues ahead and I hope the waterfront is not the only thing to be discussed. I would like to have as many as five debates to talk about the numerous issues that are important.”
The waterfront — specifically the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s plans to construct three buildings on its 4.2 acres, significantly expand the existing park and reduce the number of parking spaces — has become a centerpiece issue in the race for mayor. The NRA is an independent city board; however, the mayor has some influence over it — the mayor appoints four of its five members.
Holaday had advocated for limited commercial development on the NRA property, while both Earls and Sullivan oppose the NRA plan and advocated for an open waterfront.
Sullivan, who is completing his first term as an at-large councilor, said, “I am thrilled with this outcome, and I think my showing came from a lot of hard work.
“In addition to getting out and meeting the voters, I think the name Sullivan stands for something here. Many people know our family and what we stand for.”
Sullivan’s father, Richard Sullivan Sr., was mayor here from 1978-86 and his brother, Chris, was a mayor in 1997 after the resignation of Lisa Mead. Dick Sullivan Jr. is a retired firefighter who served on the School Committee prior to serving on the council.
Earls, a resident of Ward 2, as is Holaday, said, “I thank those who worked for me and those who gave me their votes. I think the election said something about the waterfront.
“I wouldn’t speculate on what might have been; we worked hard and I thank those who helped.”
The election saw an eventful final few days, with Newburyporters receiving an anonymous flier accusing Holaday of selling out to commercial interests on the NRA’s waterfront lots. The flier, whose author is unknown, broke state campaign finance laws because no disclosure filings were made. Holaday flatly rejected the accusations, and held a press conference on City Hall’s front steps Monday to call for an end to anonymous attacks. As she held the conference, she had just learned that another anonymous attack had been launched — robocalls went out across the city, making similar accusations against her.
Across the city, the three candidates showed strengths and weaknesses. Sullivan did best in Wards 5 and 6, in the West End of the city, wards that tend to vote for more conservative candidates. Sullivan also lives in Ward 5. Holaday performed best in Wards 3 and 4, the neighborhoods to the west of the downtown and around the industrial park.
“Wards 1 and 2 are going to be crucial,” said Tom O’Brien, who is City Council president. “Earls did very well in those wards, and those votes will be important.”
Earls won slightly more than half the votes in Ward 2, the highest margin of victory any of the candidates won in any ward. The ward includes Newburyport’s downtown and part of the South End. He edged out Holaday by a slight margin in Ward 1, which runs through the South End, Plum Island and the Joppa neighborhood.
City Councilor Barry Connell said, “There were three strong candidates for mayor, but running out of a ward can be difficult. Greg had represented Ward 2 for many years ,but Sullivan had run as a citywide candidate in the past.
“It helps to be known by all the voters.”
Sullivan had run for the at-large council post two years ago and earned a position on the panel by coming in fifth. He edged incumbent Steve Hutcheson to assume the last seat of the at-large winners.
Two years ago, Holaday ran unopposed, as did all ward councilors. Eight candidates ran for five at-large council positions.
Voters in Wards 2 and 4 also had a race for City Council on the ballot, winnowing a field of three candidates to two.
In Ward 2, City Council candidates Chris Welch (287) and Jared Eigerman (275) advanced to the final election. Paula Chambers polled 138.
In Ward 4, Charlie Tontar (412) and incumbent Tom Jones (223) were the top votegetters for City Council. Sean McDonald drew 187 votes.
This fall, all six wards will be contested and there are 10 candidates running for five at-large positions.
A surprise in the ward races was the margin of victory registered by Tontar, a first-time candidate. By outdistancing Jones, running for his fifth term, by 189 votes, he put himself in a strong position for the final voting.
The Ward 2 final race will be between two lawyers, Welch and Eigerman. Welch is former city councilor; Eigerman, a native of this city who started his career in San Francisco but returned, is running here for the first time.
City officials appeared pleased with the turnout. Spokesmen in the office of the city clerk had predicted 20 to 25 percent participation, but municipal leaders calculated that about 32 percent of the city’s 13,200 registered voters went to the polls.
In most wards, the only decision to bring people out was the choice for mayor.
The final days of the mayoral election were marked by public attention to a flier and robocalls that criticized the mayor’s position on the waterfront, but few observers yesterday said they felt that the anonymous calls had any effect on the race.
The final election will mark the first time a mayor is running for a four-year term. The position pays $98,000, with a $3,000 expense account.