SALEM — Has Kim Driscoll ended Salem’s era of hard-fought mayoral races?
Driscoll very well may walk into a third term this fall, just as she did when she was re-elected in 2009. The veteran politico will face two little-known candidates in a mayoral preliminary next month.
In decades past, races for Salem’s top office were always contentious, with a history of toppling incumbent mayors. Driscoll, considered a long-shot candidate when she first ran in 2005, knocked off eight-year Mayor Stan Usovicz in a preliminary election and clinched 63 percent of the vote over her challenger, longtime City Councilor Kevin Harvey, in the November election.
“Salem has had several bruising mayoral elections, back as far as I can remember,” said former Mayor Neil Harrington, now the town manager of Salisbury.
Harrington said he believes every Salem mayor — himself included — has not left voluntarily but has been voted out of office since Mayor Francis Collins stepped down in 1969.
The exception would be Mayor Samuel Zoll, who stepped down in 1973 to become a district court judge.
Since Driscoll has taken office, Salem’s mayoral races, frankly, have just not been interesting.
“She’s just tough to beat. It’s tough to even think of taking on a record like that,” said former City Councilor Matt Veno. “She’s very good at building bridges, building relationships within the community ... That can sometimes disarm opponents. It’s tough to run against someone you have a good working relationship with.”
Driscoll was elected as Salem’s first female mayor in 2005 and re-elected in 2009 to a term that lasts through 2013. If re-elected in November, Driscoll would begin a third four-year term in January 2014.
She’s been actively campaigning this spring and recently held a well-attended fundraiser at Washington Street’s new eatery, Opus. Driscoll said this campaign will be no different from any other.
“Every race you work hard,” Driscoll said. “We try and work through issues and solve problems — that’s what I spend most of my day doing and will keep doing ... That’s the process, and it doesn’t make me work any less or think about the job differently.”
One of Salem’s three mayoral candidates will be eliminated in a Sept. 17 preliminary. Also running are perennial candidate Kenneth Sawicki and newcomer Cedric Ashley Jr. Sawicki was Driscoll’s only opponent in 2009.
Ashley, a Salem native and 2012 St. Anselm College graduate, acknowledged that he may be in a David vs. Goliath-type situation.
“I’ve played football my whole life, and I’ve always been the underdog. It’s not something I’m worried about,” said Ashley, who works at a Highland Avenue gas station and as a substitute teacher in the Salem schools. “I know that the battle’s going to be uphill ... I’m ready, I’ve been ready for this. People know that I’m pretty bold and outspoken. I’m not afraid of the challenge. I welcome the challenge.”
The Driscoll effect
With Driscoll, it seems that a number of factors are keeping serious challengers at bay.
She has an impressive track record, putting the city’s fiscal house largely in order, hiring strong aides and department heads, and working to encourage a slate of development, from the new parking garage and MBTA station to redevelopment of the city’s power plant and ferry landing at Blaney Street.
“She just has a very good combination of leadership, tenacity and temperament,” said Claudia Chuber, former city councilor and School Committee member. “She knows political attacks are just that and doesn’t waste time on the fights that are not on the issues ... Nobody can question her intelligence, her ability her commitment.”
State Rep. John Keenan said Driscoll has forged a “spirit of cooperation” within the city, from state-level delegates to city councilors and the Chamber of Commerce.
“We have all been rowing in the same direction, and I think really it has paid off. It’s been effective,” said Keenan. “I think Mayor Driscoll has proven herself to be one of the most effective mayors in the state. She’s one of the hardest-working mayors in the city’s history.”
Former City Councilor Laura Swanson also called Driscoll a consensus-builder.
“Salem is a community that likes to be engaged,” she said. “She shows up to (City) Council meetings, the neighborhood meetings ... (for) issues that could maybe be a little contentious. She’s willing to show up and be part of the conversation.”
Driscoll came into office with a working knowledge of municipal goings-on, having worked as Chelsea’s deputy city manager and served two terms on the Salem City Council.
She has worked as corporation counsel to the city of Chelsea, community development director for the city of Beverly and assistant planner for the city of Salem. She has a background in planning and land use and has also worked as a real estate and commercial development attorney.
Driscoll’s strength lies in her background, coupled with her track record in the city, said Jim Rose, chairman of the South Salem Neighborhood Association.
“If you put all those things together, it speaks well on why she’s been an effective mayor,” said Rose. “She works very well with the City Council, she’s been in their shoes ... She has a tremendous team around her, too. You have to make Salem a great place to live, and I think she’s (done that) ... She’s helped to anchor so many great things here.”
State Sen. Joan Lovely, a former Salem city councilor, agreed that Driscoll’s track record makes her hard to beat, as well as the city’s recent change from two-year to four-year mayor terms.
Driscoll’s predecessor, Stanley Usovicz, was the first Salem mayor to have a four-year term, Lovely said.
“(With a four-year term) you’re able to raise more funds, which makes it much more difficult to compete (against) an incumbent with a sizable war chest,” Lovely said. “It makes it harder to take on someone that has good money in the bank.”
“I think that Kim Driscoll, with all due respect to my friends (former mayors) Jean Levesque, Samuel Zoll and Stanley Usovicz, I think she’s the best mayor I have seen in all that time, hands down,” said George Atkins. “That’s the reason why there’s no opposition.”
Atkins, a former city councilor, ran for mayor in 1977 and has been involved in Salem politics since the 1960s.
“Although I think she’s destined for higher office, I hope we can keep her in Salem for as long as possible,” Atkins said.
Driscoll, whose name is often tossed around when pundits talk about possibilities for state-level offices, answered frankly when asked last week if the next term could be her last in Salem.
“I have no idea (if the next term could be her last),” she said. “I’m certainly enjoying what I do, and I’m very lucky to be mayor of a place that has such a history and a bright future.”
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.