By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — For the second election in a row, a smaller-than-usual field of City Council candidates will battle it out in a race that includes eight of nine incumbents, two former councilors and several well-known challengers.
The campaign toward election day on Nov. 5 has 15 candidates for nine available seats — not enough for a preliminary election in September, but enough to draw voter interest. Nineteen candidates are required to trigger a preliminary contest.
All incumbents except Michael Hart are seeking re-election, and face the challenge of two former councilors, two city lawyers, a high school teacher, a school custodian and the owner of a popular downtown sandwich shop.
The absence of Hart from the ballot means at least one challenger is certain to win a seat, but political watchers are predicting there could be more than one new councilor elected.
“No preliminary is dangerous for incumbents because someone could be in trouble and they won’t know it until it’s too late,” said Hart, the council’s current vice president who always finished among the top vote-getters in past elections. “In the past, I’ve seen incumbents do poorly in the preliminary and, as a result, start campaigning really hard and end up doing much better in the final.”
Hart, who decided to take a break from the council after serving for 10 consecutive years, said he expects at least one surprise in the election.
“Whether it’s an incumbent who gets knocked off or a challenger who does really well, I’ll be shocked if there’s not at least one big surprise,” he said.
Timothy Coco, a local radio talk show host and longtime observer of Haverhill politics, is predicting at least one incumbent will get knocked off.
“There’s an interesting dynamic in play where the two former councilors could be filling the role of incumbents,” Coco said, referring to former councilors David Hall and Ken Quimby, who are making comeback bids.
A former two-term councilor and retired Haverhill police sergeant, Hall was the top council vote-getter in the 2007 election before losing his seat two years ago. Quimby, who has run several times, was knocked off the council in 2009 and ran unsuccessfully in 2011.
“Historically, when there’s been one empty seat, more than one new councilor has gotten in,” said Coco, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate last year. “I expect at least one challenger to knock out an incumbent and two new councilors to get in.”
In the most recent election two years ago, Councilor Thomas Sullivan finished 10th in the race for nine seats, but was chosen by the council to finish former Councilor Sven Amirian’s term. That happened when Amirian resigned last year to become director of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce.
In the 2011 council election, Hall and former Councilor Michael Young lost their seats. Both were vocal critics of Mayor James Fiorentini.
“Recent councilors who got knocked out were pretty critical of the mayor,” Coco said. “The public wants activist councilors, but they don’t want negative councilors. That’s a fine line that can be hard to walk sometimes.”
Coco said former longtime Councilor Dr. Arthur Bower was the best he saw at that balancing act.
“He always did a great job of balancing criticism with having something positive to say,” Coco said of Bower. “It was a very successful formula.”
Incumbents seeking re-election, in order of their 2011 election finishes, are: John Michitson, Robert Scatamacchia, William Ryan, Michael McGonagle, Colin LePage, Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien, William Macek and Sullivan. Michitson, who topped the ballot among council candidates in that election, was council president until he resigned that position for work-related reasons.
The challengers are: Former councilors Hall and Quimby; Fred Simmons, a Haverhill school custodian and head of his workers union who has run unsuccessfully in the past; E. Phillip Brown, a Haverhill High School teacher; Lynne Saben, a local attorney; Timothy Connors, also a local lawyer; and Melinda Barrett, owner of a food and sandwich shop on Merrimack Street.
William Miller of William Miller Real Estate, another longtime observer of Haverhill elections, said the small field of challengers has led to less interest than past elections.
“It’s kind of dull,” was Miller’s first reaction when asked to characterize this election. “There’s hasn’t been a lot of talk on the street about it. But of course, that might change as it gets closer.”
Miller did not note the appearance of two female candidates on the ballot in Barrett and Saben as “a positive” toward creating voter interest. Daly O’Brien has been the only woman on the council since Kristine Hetel served with her nearly 10 years ago.
“It’s a small but good group of challengers,” Hart said. “I know Dave Hall and Ken Quimby are working really hard to get back, and I’ve seen Tim Connors out campaigning. And Melinda Barrett is from a well-known family and lots of people know her from her restaurant.”
Hart said the best recipe for a challenger victory is to knock on lots of doors.
“The question is, are they getting their message out,” Hart said of the challengers. “And the best way to do that is by going door-to-door and meeting people. They have to look people in the eye, make that personal connection and ask for their vote.”
Councilors serve a two-year term and get $8,000 a year, plus optional city health insurance.