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Jeff Smith candidacy is all about change


The race for city mayor boils down to two basic arguments. Or, rather, one argument and the response.
It's this question: How's the community of Watertown doing right now?
Incumbent Jeff Graham says: Things are fine. The Watertown area has seen expansion and growth even as the rest of upstate stagnates. Why fix what isn't broken?
And then there's the response from his challenger, Councilman Jeff Smith. Sure, Watertown is doing well. But it could do better.
"Why not just keep the Model T?" Mr. Smith said when I asked, like I asked all his supporters at a campaign kickoff at the Savory Downtown last week, that basic ain't-broke question. "It got you from A to B. But it wasn't very safe or efficient. I don't want the status quo. Things have been OK. I want to plan when it's OK to make it better. You want to strive to be better."
Mr. Smith's challenge in the Nov. 8 election is clear. He needs to convince city residents that the he could do a better job as mayor, even as the current one, whose tenure has been off and on since 1993, has overseen what some consider a relative golden age (how many Northern New York communities make housing developers salivate?).
Mr. Smith's efforts revolve around a mix of substance (green energy, Parks and Rec improvements) and style (the more nebulous crusade of "change," and a kinder, gentler, less bloggier mayoral candidate).
Mr. Graham, at his campaign kick-off in April, reeled off a list of factoids about growth in the community. New construction. Tax cuts. Sewer improvements.
But that doesn't tell the whole story, Mr. Smith's supporters argue. That includes one of Mr. Graham's key antagonists. "Middle Class" Mike Flynn, a frequent commenter on this blog and the mayor's, was at the event, wearing a dark suit and sipping a cold drink. He disagreed with the contention that the community really has harnessed all its potential.
"He's grown the capability of hotels and restaurants. But is that the best we can do? I think we can do better. Jobs that will bring in salaries for middle-class families," said the guy that calls himself Middle Class Mike, "they just aren't here."
"We need a blueprint that doesn't rely on Fort Drum," Mr. Flynn continued. "We're not creating wealth here."
But what of the substance that reporters are always looking for? What is Mr. Smith going to do to create that wealth?
Well, the thing is, Watertown's mayor is not a Stephanie Miner or a Michael Bloomberg. He (this pronoun is historical fact, though it will certainly one day change) cannot effectuate layoffs or negotiate contracts or do any of that fun administrative stuff that the city manager is in charge of.
He's just another City Council vote — plus, with the title of mayor, which brings with it ceremonial duties and a sort of role as spokesman, as it was explained to me.
Mr. Smith wants to use that extra cache to focus on green energy and improvements to the city's recreational offerings.
The leaky roof on the ice arena — an alarm he says he long ago raised — needs to be addressed, he said. He's also calling for another sheet of ice at the arena.
He also wants more miniature hydro plants in the city and to install solar panels and geo-thermal technology in city facilities (geo-thermal basically pipes warm water deep below the ground through a building, keeping it warm or cool without burning fossil fuels).
He couches many of these arguments with discussions about his children; he has four. It's the sort of soft sell that usually wins votes and earns derision from hard-nosed reporters. But in a race like this for a position like this, one must indulge.
"Look at his background," said fellow Councilman Joe Butler Jr., the son of the only man to beat Mr. Graham in an election. "He's raising a family here. He's from a different era, with all due respect to the mayor."
Some of those from that different era are supporting Mr. Smith, too.
When former Mayor Tom Walker showed up to Mr. Smith's event to lend his support, I tried to press him for specifics on why he was supporting Mr. Smith over Mr. Graham. I didn't get many.
"Graham has been around long enough," Mr. Walker said. "It's about time for a change."
As the conversation unfolded, he kept going back to that word and that idea. Change. Even when I posited to him the Great Graham Argument of 2011 — the, If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It line — he went back to the idea that it's time for a change.
"Things are good," he said. "The fact is, he's been in long enough."
The contrast in style is pretty evident from the two candidates' kickoffs. Mr. Graham's event featured politicos and a gag about Mr. Graham's birth certificate, a send-off of the controversy over whether President Obama was born in this country (he was) and the efforts to get him to prove it (which were silly). The nontroversy was a topic of discussion on the mayor's widely read blog on politics, Mayor Graham's View.
But at Mr. Graham's event, I didn't see anything like I saw at Mr. Smith's: a bunch of little kids running around, playing tag (Mr. Graham is unmarried and has no children).
Mr. Smith frequently uses those sorts of family buzzwords. He subtly said that his temperament would help bring businesses into the city — and took a swipe at the mayor's blog.
"When (business leaders or other officials) are speaking to me, they don't have to worry about me doing what you're trying to do," he said, pointing to me as I scribble in my notebook and rush back to put something on my blog.
As we spoke, one of his children, 6-year-old Iliana, used her father as a prop in a hide-and-go-seek game. He continued speaking, but was later interrupted by his 9-year-old son, Estevan, who asked if there was more pizza left. There was.
He swiveled back to me.
"We have the opportunity for people like myself and Councilman Butler to make our community a great place for our kids and our future."

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