BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — As a boy growing up in New London, Conn., Wes Slate remembers tagging along with his mother on Election Day, watching her disappear behind the curtain of the voting booth, exercising a right her parents were once denied.
Slate’s maternal grandparents grew up in the Azores, the islands off Portugal that at the time were ruled by dictatorship. When his grandfather and grandmother immigrated to the United States, they worked in the textile mills as a machinist and seamstress to carve out a living in their new country.
“They were real tough, hardworking people,” Slate said. “Basically, they came over here from nothing. When you grow up with that, you kind of absorb that.”
Slate, 63, is now touting those dual traits of hard work and respect for the democratic process as the defining characteristics of his campaign for mayor.
In what he acknowledges is an uphill climb, Slate is facing off against former City Council president and state representative Mike Cahill for the right to succeed Bill Scanlon, who is not running for re-election after a record 18 years in office.
While Cahill grew up in Beverly, is backed by a large family and has won six citywide elections, Slate is a relative newcomer to the city’s political scene. Until last month’s preliminary election, in which he finished second to Cahill by more than 1,000 votes, the three-term city councilor had never been on the ballot outside of his home Ward 2.
For that reason, Slate’s biography is not as familiar to voters. Those who know him only as the serious-minded city councilor with an affection for City Council rules and procedures might be surprised to know that he was once a high school drama teacher.
Slate said he caught the “acting bug” at an early age, inspired in part by competing for attention at the dinner table with his three siblings. He performed in his first play in seventh grade. As an English major at the University of Connecticut, he took theater classes and worked behind the scenes at school performances.
Slate became an English teacher at Montville High School in Connecticut and started a drama program. That was where he met a music teacher named Georgia Bills, who helped him organize the school musicals and later became his wife. Slate and Bills started their own summer theater school, staging musicals such as “Oliver” and “Pippin.”
A photograph from a 1976 edition of the Connecticut newspaper The Day features Slate, with long sideburns and wearing jeans and sneakers, during a rehearsal at Montville High under the headline, “Director’s dream comes true with ‘Godspell.’”
“He was very passionate,” said Pamela Howitt, a retired music teacher at Montville High. “He had a lot of foresight to start the drama program. Nothing like that had been done around here before, and it was so successful it continued for 30 years.
“The kids loved him, but he wasn’t easy,” Howitt said. “He was very organized. He made things fun. It was mostly innovative things. He got ‘Godspell’ as soon as it was available.”
Moving to Beverly
Slate and Bills married in 1978 and moved to Massachusetts so Bills could pursue a job with a touring theater company. Slate got a teaching job at Wayland High School. Two years later, the state adopted Proposition 21/2, the tax-limiting measure that led to teacher layoffs.
Worried that a two-teacher family was too much of a financial risk, Slate left the profession and got a job in marketing with New England Telephone.
The couple started looking for a home where they could raise a family. In 1982, they bought a house on Lothrop Street in Beverly across from oceanside Independence Park.
“I grew up in southeastern Connecticut on the water, and Georgia grew up in the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York,” Slate said. “We wanted to be able to look out the window first thing in the morning and see the water.”
Slate remained with the telephone company, which took on many forms during its government-mandated breakup, for the next 20 years. He traveled throughout New England to help oversee the implementation of new communication systems for a mix of civilian and military customers, including Hanscom Air Force Base; the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn.; and President George H. W. Bush’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Citing the constant travel and a desire for more time with his wife and their son, Richard, Slate left the telephone company and went to work for Crane Electronics. Crane, on Tozer Road in Beverly, manufactures and sells radio-frequency and microwave devices to large defense contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
Slate said he has negotiated contracts and dealt with union employees, two skills that would come in handy as mayor.
Outside of work, he was active in Democratic political campaigns dating back to his days in Connecticut. He campaigned on behalf of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren and twice served as coordinator of Gov. Deval Patrick’s campaign in Beverly.
When Ward 2 City Councilor Miranda Gooding opted not to run for re-election in 2007, Slate said she called him and asked if he would be interested in running.
“It was a good time,” he said. “Richard was in college, and I was working close to home.”
‘Wes the workhorse’
One of his top accomplishments as a councilor, Slate said, was chairing a subcommittee that spent three years revising and updating more than 360 pages of city ordinances, a task that the city had deferred for several years.
He also helped to develop an ordinance that increased police power to enforce noise violations, and another to create child safety zones at the library, schools and playgrounds that prohibit registered sex offenders.
Former City Councilor Kevin Hobin, who served on the ordinance review committee, said Slate’s attention to detail was never more evident than during that thankless task.
“It was a very tedious process, and Wes followed through,” Hobin said. “His commitment forced the other committee members to stay with it. You could tell he did his homework.”
Slate has the endorsements of the mayor, the City Council president (Paul Guanci), and the longest-serving councilor (Maureen Troubetaris). The question is whether his reputation within the walls of City Hall as a hard worker will translate to enough of the voting public.
Slate acknowledges that he and Cahill have few, if any, differences on the major issues facing the city, so Slate is hammering away at ‘work ethic’ as a distinguishing characteristic.
He calls himself a “workhorse” in his campaign literature and has adopted the slogan “Wes will do the work.” The none-too-subtle implication is that Cahill, with whom Slate served on the council for two years, will not.
In a citywide mailing to residents, Slate said Cahill “failed to prepare” for City Council meetings and seemed “distracted and not engaged.” They are basically the same charges that Scanlon leveled at Cahill two years ago, when Cahill fell 353 votes short of beating him.
Cahill fired back at Slate during a debate at Cove Community Center, accusing him of “character assassination,” and ticked off a long list of accomplishments as state representative and city councilor.
Slate has not relented in pushing the issue.
“When other people that we served with publicly endorse me and refer to my work ethic and dedication to the job and attention to detail as being superior ... these people don’t owe me anything,” he said.
With his background as a campaign worker, Slate knows he faces a daunting task to make up the more than 1,000-vote margin that separated him and Cahill in last month’s preliminary election.
His hopes rest in part on the fact that twice as many people — anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 — are expected to vote in the Nov. 5 final.
“We have to go after those other people that we have identified and we have a chance of getting,” Slate said. “A lot of it is just retail politics, knocking on doors and going to events. There’s no magic to it.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.