By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — In the wake of his first election defeat since taking office, Mayor Thatcher Kezer is challenging his opponent to stop relying on grand platitudes and explain how he hopes to accomplish the goals he’s campaigning on.
Ken Gray, a political newcomer who won Tuesday’s preliminary mayoral election with 52 percent of the vote, is running on a platform of addressing Amesbury’s high tax rate while improving the city’s school system.
In the months leading up to Election Day, Gray and his supporters were out campaigning on a daily basis, and on Tuesday night they were rewarded for their efforts with an eight-point margin of victory over the four-term incumbent, who only kicked off his campaign about two weeks ago.
Kezer had previously won every election since first running for mayor of Amesbury in 2005. On Tuesday, he placed second in the preliminary with 44 percent of the vote. The two candidates will face off in the Nov. 5 general election.
Following Gray’s victory, Kezer said he understands how Gray’s message could sound attractive to voters, but said that there’s a tradeoff between taxes and services, and you can’t just say you’re going to fix all the city’s problems without saying how. He echoed the sentiments being voiced by others in the community, and called on Gray to share details of his plan for the city.
“My challenge to my opponent is this: What is your plan?” Kezer said. “How are you going to meet that balance between controlling taxes and meeting those needs for services?”
Kezer said that as mayor, he has had to make a lot of difficult decisions over the past eight years to strike that balance, and in doing so, he’s opened himself up to criticism from people who don’t have any kind of record of their own.
“I’ve had to lead this city through the worst economic recession of our lifetime, which means I’ve had to make some really tough decisions to balance out taxes and meeting our needs with services,” Kezer said. “By doing that, it makes it really easy for a challenger, especially for someone who has little connection to the community and no political experience.”
Gray said yesterday that he’s in the process of finalizing a detailed plan outlining exactly what his goals are and how he will meet them, which he will release within the next few weeks. He said that should hopefully answer any question voters may have about his strategy.
He also clarified that, despite what many believe, he does not plan to cut spending to reduce the tax rate, but instead hopes to slow the growth of spending to a point that the city can sustain.
“I don’t think we can cut spending,” Gray said. “Many costs, for example, labor costs, have automatic increases already baked in the cake. What we can do is slow down the rate of increase of spending. It has taken many years to get us in the situation we are in, and it will take time to turn it around.
“That turnaround, however, cannot begin until we collectively realize we have a problem,” Gray continued. “I think that realization began [on Tuesday].”
Gray also addressed charges made by many in the school community that his lowering taxes would inevitably result in cuts to the school system, which makes up more than half of the city’s budget.
Gray said his goal is to help Amesbury’s schools become “excellent,” and he believes the best way to do that is through greater accountability and by making sure none of the money given to the schools goes to waste.