By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — The people of Beverly have elected Bill Scanlon mayor more often than they have anyone in the city's history. But never has the winning margin been as close as it was yesterday.
Scanlon staved off a strong challenge by City Council President Mike Cahill to win by 353 votes and earn a ninth two-year term by the slimmest of margins.
"Oh, what a night!" Scanlon said as he stood on stage in front of about 100 cheering supporters at the Vittori-Rocci Post. "I've had the pleasure of being up here now nine times. This is the best one yet."
Cahill, a hometown boy who rose to state representative and then council president, gave Scanlon his toughest challenge since the incumbent was upset by Tom Crean in 2001.
Cahill had beaten Scanlon by 194 votes in the four-man September preliminary, but yesterday's final election drew nearly 4,000 more voters. Yesterday, Cahill beat Scanlon in Wards 2 and 3 and came within three votes of the mayor in Ward 1.
But Scanlon racked up victories in Wards 4, 5 and 6, the three wards with the highest voter turnouts, to make the difference. Scanlon won with 51 percent of the vote to Cahill's 48 percent. The voter turnout was 44 percent, comparable to previous turnouts but relatively low considering the close race and perfect weather.
Cahill drove from his gathering at the Italian Community Center to shake Scanlon's hand at the Vittori-Rocci Post, where a life-size cardboard cutout of a waving Scanlon stood outside the front door. Back at the ICC, Cahill said he was proud of his campaign and the support he received.
"We had high hopes going into today, so we're obviously disappointed," he said. "But this is a fantastic group of people who have been volunteering and supporting and helping out. As disappointed as I am personally, this was good for the city. The city hasn't had this kind of choice, this kind of election, in 20 years."
With his wife, Louise, by his side, Scanlon looked on as his campaign manager, Joyce McMahon, posted the results on a screen as they came in ward by ward. The race was too close to call until campaign worker Matt Gelineau emerged with the report from Ward 4, which Scanlon won by 236 votes.
"We won!" Gelineau yelled, and the crowd erupted in applause.
Scanlon said even a poll conducted by his campaign showed him losing.
"If a couple of hundred votes had turned the other way, we would've lost this thing," he said.
The close race might have turned in the final weeks when Scanlon, who raised nearly three times as much money as Cahill in the final two months, sent out a flurry of mailers, some of them with attacks on his opponent.
The campaign literature characterized Cahill as candidate who was too "sweet" to make the tough decisions required of a mayor and questioned his attendance record as a state representative and city councilor.
"We had to fight a lot of things in this campaign: hometown boy, big family," Scanlon said in his victory speech. "But I think we finally got our message across, and this is a reward for having worked hard for 16 years to make Beverly a better place."
Longtime Scanlon supporter Bruce Nardella said Scanlon's second-place finish to Cahill in the preliminary election lit a fire under the mayor and his backers.
"Frankly, I think that was the best thing that could've happened to us," Nardella said. "It got us more focused, and it got us more energized. We knew we had to work harder. There were two good candidates, but we worked hard to get Bill's record out in front of the voters over the last three weeks, and I think that made the difference."
Scanlon also got a boost from several endorsements, including those of four city councilors, four School Committee members and Tim Flaherty, who finished third in the preliminary.
"This stuff does get harder as you get older, and I'm getting older," said Scanlon, who is 71. "However, it's not about how many push-ups you can do, it's about helping the city."
As if to emphasize his point, Scanlon leapt off the stage after making his speech.
At the Italian Community Center, Cahill supporters said they were proud of the way their candidate ran his campaign. During one debate, Cahill accused Scanlon of "tearing me down to build himself up," but otherwise made a point of not engaging in negative campaigning.
"Mike Cahill ran the most honorable and upstanding and responsible campaign that one could imagine," Bisson Street resident Charlie Perlo said. "I think we're going to hear plenty from Mike Cahill in the future."
Cahill supporter Dave Battistelli said the attacks on Cahill might have actually hurt Scanlon more than Cahill. But the endorsement of Scanlon of eight elected officials was difficult to overcome.
"Some of the endorsements were surprising and disappointing to our camp," Battistelli said. "We didn't think that was going to happen."
An hour after the loss, a smiling Cahill exchanged handshakes and hugs from his supporters and joked with his nephew, Liam, calling him "my campaign spokesman."
Asked about the sometimes negative tone of the Scanlon campaign, Cahill said, "That's for other people to talk about."
"I feel proud of the way we campaigned from the start," he said. "I am so grateful for my family and my friends and everybody who stepped up to help."
A lawyer who works as executive director of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs, Cahill, 49, was asked if he would run for mayor again.
"This is not the night for that," he said.
Scanlon said he is looking forward to taking on projects, such as a new middle school and the Brimbal Avenue interchange. He mentioned that he is heading to Boston tomorrow for a meeting on a planned MBTA parking garage in Beverly.
"I think this is going to help keep Beverly on a good course for the next couple of years, and we'll do things that will impact Beverly for the next 50 years," he said. "I'm thrilled to be here."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at email@example.com.