By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — The heated mayoral election reached a stunning conclusion last night when Ken Gray defeated Mayor Thatcher Kezer by a mere eight votes in yesterday’s city election.
Gray finished atop the polls with 2,088 votes to Kezer’s 2,080 votes, beating the four-term incumbent Kezer by the slimmest possible margin to become the fourth mayor in Amesbury history.
“The folks in Amesbury have given me the honor of voting for me. I’m humbled, I’m certainly pleased, I owe a huge part of this beyond the voters to my team, who have been amazing,” he said.
When the results came out as close as they were, Kezer, for his part, was not ready to concede defeat in the moments after the initial results were announced.
“It’s very close, so we need to take a look at a number of ballots that aren’t accounted for that might have flipped out of the system,” Kezer said. “So there’s a time frame in order to do a recount, so that’s what we’ll look into.”
There are 41 ballots that did not record a vote for either candidate, and those ballots may prove crucial in a recount.
When the results of the race were announced, City Clerk Bonnijo Kitchin read off each total by district, and the tension grew among supporters of each candidate as it became clear the race was going to be close. Once the final district’s numbers were read, there was a moment of quiet disbelief among the crowd of about 150 before supporters of Gray began to congratulate him on his victory.
Besides thanking his supporters, Gray also praised Kezer for running a good campaign, and said he would be reaching out to the mayor in the near future to begin the transition process.
“The mayor ran a good campaign,” Gray said. “I’m really pleased that we ran campaigns that we could both be proud of, and I think that’s important for the people of Amesbury and hopefully we can start to bring everyone together.”
Gray’s close victory was ultimately fueled by the heavy support he received in Districts 1 and 5, which both have a lot of waterfront property where Gray’s promise to control spending may have resonated. Kezer’s best showing was in District 3, but the other three districts were each decided by fewer than 25 votes.
Overall, voter turnout in this year’s election was higher than average, with 37.8 percent of Amesbury’s registered voters casting ballots. Kitchin said 1,094 more voters cast ballots this year than in the last city election in 2011, when only 28.4 percent of registered voters came to the polls.
City officials attributed the increase in the level of interest to the high number of contested races on the ballot — seven of the nine seats on the City Council featured contested races in addition to the mayor’s race — along with Gray’s surprising 52-44 percent win in the Sept. 17 preliminary election. It was the first time in Kezer’s mayoral career that he had failed to win an election, having won every other election he’d participated in since becoming mayor in 2005 by a wide margin.
Kezer responded to the loss by ramping up his campaign efforts, raising nearly $10,000 from supporters in the process. He also aligned himself with the “I Am Pro Amesbury” PAC, which supported candidates who favor increased investment in the city to promote commercial/industrial growth.
At the same time, Gray doubled down on his efforts to control spending and bring a goal- and results-oriented approach to the city’s top elected office with the hope of turning the city around.
In the end, the key difference between the two candidates proved to be their position on taxes. Kezer’s main argument was that Amesbury is headed on the right track and doesn’t have a tax problem, while Gray said Amesbury’s taxes are out of control, and the city won’t be able to reach its full potential until the issue is addressed.