By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — More than six months of campaigning paid off in a big way for Ken Gray last night, as the political newcomer beat incumbent Mayor Thatcher Kezer in yesterday’s preliminary mayoral election by a sizable margin.
Gray finished at the top of the polls with 977 votes, good for 52 percent of the total. Kezer finished in second with 826 votes (44 percent), followed by Jim Thivierge in third with 45 votes (2 percent) and Jeffrey Hoover in fourth with 39 votes (2 percent).
Gray and Kezer will now move on to the Nov. 5 general election, when the voters will determine which of the two candidates will become Amesbury’s next mayor.
The news of Gray’s victory elated his crowd of supporters at Amesbury High School, who congratulated the challenger, while Kezer’s backers looked on in obvious disappointment. Despite the results, both candidates said afterward that there is still a lot of work to be done going into November.
“Winning is always better than coming in second, and I think we still have a long way to go, but I’m very, very pleased that we had such a high turnout and the people of Amesbury seem to be wanting a change,” Gray said after the results were announced.
Yesterday’s defeat marked the first time in Kezer’s mayoral career that he has failed to win an election. Kezer was first elected mayor in 2005, and since then he has won every election he’s participated in by a wide margin.
Kezer attributed Gray’s performance to the considerable effort his campaign put in to drive turnout and push the issue of the city’s tax rate. He noted that while he has spent most of the year focused on running the city, Gray has been out campaigning for months.
“They’ve had a head start on their message, so now it’s time for me to put out my message as to what the reality is and the challenges of running municipalities,” Kezer said.
While both Gray and Kezer each won three of the city’s six districts, Gray’s performance in Districts 1 and 5, in particular, helped distance him from Kezer. Gray took 59 percent of the vote in both districts, and Kezer acknowledged that since both districts have a lot of waterfront property, Gray’s message of lower tax rates likely resonated more there.
“These are homes that are on water that maintained their values and therefore saw the most impact on their taxes,” Kezer said. “So I think the next step in the process is to talk about the level of services, and ask what is his plan to address both controlling taxes and delivering the services the residents expect?”
Overall, turnout in yesterday’s election was 17 percent, much higher than anticipated and more than double the 7 percent turnout in the 2011 mayoral preliminary. In fact, more votes had already been cast before 1 p.m. than had been cast all day during the 2011 preliminary, according to City Clerk Bonnijo Kitchin.
“I definitely have been happier with the turnout today compared to the last time,” Kitchin said shortly before noon.
Gray and Kezer also had large groups of supporters holding signs outside the Amesbury High School cafeteria as well, some of whom stayed for the entire day.
Michael Greaney, a longtime Amesbury resident who frequently speaks at City Council meetings, spent 13 hours holding a sign for Ken Gray despite being well into his 80s. Even before the results were announced, Greaney said he was confident that Gray would perform well.
“I think when this is over, you’ll have a new name for mayor,” Greaney said. “And his name is Ken Gray.”
Bill Poulin, a lifelong resident of Amesbury, said he voted for Kezer because he feels the mayor has done a good job meeting the city’s challenges while leading Amesbury through a difficult period of time.
“I had to come vote because you have to understand that Amesbury is facing many issues, including the budget, its education and infrastructure,” Poulin said. “I believe Mayor Kezer would be the one I’d vote for, he hasn’t done us wrong.”
Gray said his strategy won’t change going into the general election, and he’ll continue to try to meet as many people as possible ahead of Nov. 5.
“More knocking on doors, meeting people, getting my story out, getting my message out and getting my plan out,” Gray said.