, Newburyport, MA

September 30, 2013

In Amesbury, a deep political divide

Warring camps emerge in mayoral, council races

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — The battle lines are being drawn in Amesbury as the candidates for City Council and their supporters begin to coalesce into two camps ahead of the November election, those for Mayor Thatcher Kezer and those for his challenger, Ken Gray.

On the City Council, Anne Ferguson, Bob Gilday, Bob Lavoie and Allen Neale have all pledged their support to Kezer, saying they believe he is best equipped to lead Amesbury going forward, while most of the new challengers favor Gray and have stepped up because they believe it is time to change the council’s direction.

For some, this year’s election is reminiscent of the 2005 municipal election, when Amesbury became sharply divided between two opposing groups and fostered a highly contentious political atmosphere. This year’s race has already taken on a similar tone, with supporters of both sides relentlessly debating each other on various online forums, including FaceBook and The Daily News’ comment section.

While no two candidates share exactly the same views, generally those who support the mayor want to press on with the Lower Millyard redevelopment effort and ultimately grow the commercial/industrial tax base, while Gray’s supporters want to see the tax rate decrease — or at least increase more slowly — while reining in wasteful spending. Both sides have also said that improving the schools is a top priority as well.

Incumbent City Councilors Jim Kelcourse, Joseph McMilleon and Christian Scorzoni have each said they’re neutral on the matter and are trying to keep focused on winning their own council races. Scorzoni summed up his sentiment by saying he feels that the mayor has done a good job articulating his vision for the Lower Millyard, but that the issue of the city’s taxes is real and should be taken seriously.

The sole incumbent councilor on the nine-member City Council who has publicly pledged support to Gray is District 3 Councilor Donna McClure, who is running for an at-large seat and is a staunch advocate of lowering Amesbury’s taxes.

McClure’s politics often put her at odds with her fellow councilors, and she is routinely outvoted by an 8-1 margin on council decisions. She was the lone voice of dissent in many of the current council’s high-profile votes, most notably its decision to approve the relocation of the DPW out of the Lower Millyard.

While McClure has been a lone voice on the council for the past two years, she said she is excited by the like-minded candidates who have stepped forward; and whether she wins or loses this November, she is confident the new council will be much more balanced.

“I’m really impressed that they all stood up, and I met most of them after they decided on this run,” McClure said. “I’ve mostly just given them advice on how to get started. It sounds like this group is committed to reason and research. Nobody hates anyone, and nobody dislikes Thatcher. They think he’s a great person, just not a great mayor.”

The new crop of candidates include Paul Sickorez in District 1, Erin Butt in District 5, Dave Haraske in District 6 and Eric Bezanson in the at-large field, along with David Moavenzadeh, who is running unopposed in District 3. There had originally been a candidate lined up to challenge Bob Lavoie in District 4 as well, but he wound up having to back out of the race due to conflicts with work.

Since Gray emerged as the top vote-getter in the Sept. 17 preliminary, earning 52 percent of the vote compared to Kezer’s 44 percent, there has been growing optimism among the new candidates.

“I think it’s going to be an exciting election,” Butt said. “I think the number of people who came out to vote is a good indicator that people are concerned about the direction that Amesbury is heading in.”

The one new candidate who is not a part of the lower taxes bloc is Jonathan Sherwood, who is opposing Haraske in the District 6 race and is an outspoken supporter of Kezer. Sherwood previously represented District 6 from 2007 to 2009 before stepping down to focus on his family, and he is now attempting to win back his old seat after incumbent Derek Kimball announced he would not seek re-election.

Organized effort

While all the newcomers largely share the same philosophy on wanting to lower Amesbury’s taxes and decided to run because they were dissatisfied with the current council, they say they did not plan their runs together and in most cases just met within the past few months.

“It’s interesting, I only know Erin Butt, and the only way that I knew her is because I was the owner-operator of a dry cleaner in Bedford, and she one of my customers,” Sickorez said. “I met Donna McClure at a meet and greet here in the neighborhood, and some of the others I’ve just bumped into and I know them in passing, but I don’t know them any other way.”

Although the candidates each stepped forward on their own, there has been a behind-the-scenes effort to organize a campaign to unseat Kezer and the majority of the current city councilors by advocates of lower taxes and reduced spending.

As far back as January, shortly after Kezer decided not to use free cash to reduce the city’s newly announced $20.24 tax rate, dissatisfied residents began meeting to discuss ideas, policies and potential election strategies to bring about meaningful change.

Mike Buetow was the primary host of these meetings, holding them at his Cabot Court home throughout the early spring. The meetings were reportedly productive, enough so in that in March Buetow told The Daily News he felt confident every council race would be contested come the fall.

Since then, Buetow has acted as an organizer, helping reach out to potential candidates while arranging campaign meet-and-greet events. He has also served as a key advisor to Gray, sitting down with him during interviews and helping respond to questions from voters and criticisms from opponents.

Buetow does not consider himself to be a campaign manager for Gray or any of the other candidates, instead calling himself simply a supporter. He added that the new candidates are largely handling their own campaign matters, although they are all basically on the same page.

“There are some shared concerns, and some of them have priorities that are slightly different than each other and from Ken’s,” Buetow said. “I’m not comfortable speaking on their behalf, but I think there is a shared consensus that the town is moving in the wrong direction and that needs to be remedied.”

So far the newcomers have supported one another early in the campaign season by appearing at each other’s neighborhood meet and greet events, and McClure, Butt and Haraske all donated money to Gray’s campaign as well, according to campaign finance reports.

That fact has not gone unnoticed by the incumbent candidates. Council President Anne Ferguson, who is an ardent supporter of Kezer and is one of five candidates running for councilor at-large this coming November, said there is a sense that the new candidates are essentially working as a team.

“I do think that all the new candidates have banded together,” Ferguson said. “There’s not one who is separate from that, they all sit together and they all respond together on the Facebook pages.”

Ferguson said she was disappointed that her group wasn’t able to successfully rally as many new candidates as the opposition, pointing to District 3 in particular as a race that she feels should have been contested.

“I feel it’s better to have a candidate in every district so you have to earn your color, so to speak,” Ferguson said. “To have to campaign, to have to go out there and debate, go door to door and show people what you have to represent.”

As far as the new group’s message of lower taxes and better services, the incumbent candidates acknowledge that it makes for a great campaign slogan, but they don’t believe it’s a realistic promise to make to voters.

“Really, the discussion should be centered on holding any tax increase to a minimum, because in order to cut the tax rate by $1, you have to take $1.8 million out of the cost of service, and frankly, we’ve been through the budget, and there isn’t $1.8 million to take out,” Neale said. “For them to think they can reduce the tax rate while improving the schools, while we would all agree that’s preferable, it’s not doable.”

Political camps

Ferguson said she wouldn’t characterize the election as a simple black and white affair, but said it’s obvious that both mayoral candidates have their supporters. She said that Sherwood and herself have been working hard to help get Kezer re-elected, and she also supports most of the rest of her fellow city councilors, McClure excluded.

Gilday has similarly expressed support for his fellow councilors by plastering their names all over his lawn. He has posted campaign signs for incumbents Kezer, Ferguson, Neale, Kelcourse on his lawn, along with Sherwood’s sign and his own.

He added that he plans to put up signs for Scorzoni and McMilleon when they arrive, and he’ll also probably reorganize them so they’re easier to read.

“My wife clumped them all together,” Gilday said, joking. “So I’ve got to go to spread them out a little more.”

Similarly, Kezer has a sign for Ferguson and himself posted outside his house, Sherwood has signs for himself, Kezer and Ferguson, Lavoie has two signs for Kezer, and Ferguson has signs for Kezer and Sherwood.

On the other side, Gray and McClure have each had their signs posted across Amesbury for months, and it’s not uncommon to find both their signs posted together. Depending on where you are in town, you may also find them grouped together with signs for Sickorez, Butt, Haraske and Bezanson.

Kelcourse is the only candidate whose signs seem to appear on the lawns of both sides.

Personal and negative

Scorzoni, who is running unopposed for re-election in District 2, noted the divide between the two camps and said he wishes more people could find a middle ground. He also expressed disappointment with the highly negative tone this year’s election has already taken, saying it has gotten very personal very quickly.

“I think that’s unfortunate, I think it misses some of the bigger picture opportunities,” Scorzoni said. “In the Boston mayoral race, you had all these candidates and throughout it all it couldn’t have been more cordial, but up here it’s just gotten so personal and negative. I see that happening from both camps, and I’m very frustrated by it.”

The last time an election divided along such clear lines was 2005, when Kezer first ran for mayor against former City Councilor Tom Iacobucci. That race was famous for both its contentious nature and the sharp divide it created between supporters of Iacobucci, who was a well-established political figure, and Kezer, who was then a newcomer to Amesbury politics.

At the time, the third rail of Amesbury politics was the Amesbury Public Library building project, and many of those who opposed the project backed Iacobucci and a slate of nine like-minded council candidates, while those who were for the project largely supported Kezer.

Lavoie, who, like Kezer, was first elected to his current position in the 2005 election season, recalled that given how the debates, the newspaper coverage and everything else played out, Kezer wound up defeating Iacobucci handily, but at the same time, six of Iacobucci’s candidates won their districts and formed what became known as the “Council Majority.” McClure was among the councilors who comprised this group.

Over the two years that followed, the Council Majority stiffly opposed Kezer and made a number of decisions that proved deeply unpopular. The most inflammatory move was the council’s vote to institute a split tax rate, which sharply raised the taxes of local businesses while providing slight relief to the residential taxpayers. The vote raised the ire of the community and was the spark that prompted most of the current city councilors to seek office in the first place.

“In the election following that, the people had enough, and those candidates were voted out,” Lavoie said. “Since then most of us have run unopposed.”

Lavoie said he expects this will be a watershed election for Amesbury, and while there are major similarities between the two races, he said the big difference between 2005 and 2013 is that he feels Gray is a very viable candidate for mayor who has some great qualifications, as well as some drawbacks.

Either way, he expects the race will ultimately be a referendum on the mayor and the council, and one way or another, the voters will make the final call.

“It’s going to be a value judgment by the appropriate body, the voters, to decide if they want more of the same or if they want something different,” he said.