SALEM — Election Day is still about a month away, and things are heating up in some city races.
Two City Council candidates in Ward 4 are locking horns over two upcoming candidate forums, and a write-in candidate has emerged to take on the unopposed incumbent in Ward 2.
Sticker candidate emerges
Having no opponent on the ballot on Nov. 5, Christine Madore was due to walk into her second term on the City Council representing Ward 2, which is mainly the downtown area of the city. But Stacia Kraft, a Federal Street resident active with several community organizations around the city, has announced she is running a write-in campaign to challenge Madore.
"I kind of think about it like military service," Kraft said. "If we don't like who's in there, we should all do two years. So go do two years."
Kraft has been a major player in Leslie Retreat events each year, as well as the creation of community gardens at Mack Park and Palmer Cove and the new parent-teacher organization at Salem High School.
Write-in campaigns are also known as "sticker campaigns" because the candidates will hand out stickers voters can place on the write-in section of the ballot, as opposed to writing that person's name.
There have been a few of these in Salem in recent years. In 2015, after the sudden death of longtime Ward 7 Councilor Joe O'Keefe, who was running for re-election, two candidates emerged to run sticker campaigns. Ultimately, Steve Dibble was elected and then re-elected in 2017.
In that election cycle, Ward 4 Councilor Tim Flynn also ran his first campaign against ward resident Robert McCarthy and sticker candidate Ana Campos, who entered the race late looking to provide a third option for voters. Flynn prevailed and is now up for re-election.
As for Madore, she isn't sweating the sudden arrival of a write-in candidate. That's because she has other things to sweat, she said — like the fact that her ward is Ground Zero for the city's Haunted Happenings festivities.
"Obviously, we're in the busiest month of the year," Madore said. "The need for constituent services is at its peak this month, so I'm just very focused on making sure ward residents' day-to-day quality of life isn't too impacted."
Candidates feud over forums
Meanwhile, a fight has emerged in Ward 4, where Flynn faces a re-election challenge from Putnam Street resident Michael Cusick, but the current sparring match has more to do with which forums the opponents will attend than neighborhood issues.
Flynn had committed to attend both a League of Women Voters forum on Oct. 17, as well as a Gallows Hill neighborhood association forum two days earlier. But he has since pulled out of the League event, criticizing the organization for trying to take over all the election forums this year.
Cusick, meanwhile, was also committed to the Oct. 17 forum and said he hasn't been offered a formal invite to the Gallows event.
It's unclear which forum was organized first or when the organizers realized their events were scheduled so close together, although Cusisk says he believes the Gallows Hill forum was pulled together on short notice on Sept. 17, the date of the city's preliminary election. At that point, he had already committed to the Oct. 17 one.
"I still have an incomplete story," he said. "Apparently (Gallows) called a meeting on very short notice, on election day. That's when they decided to do it — this after the League of Women Voters already had a written agreement that they were going to sponsor the forum."
Flynn, meanwhile, is raising concerns about League involvement in forums around Salem.
"The League of Women Voters was formed about a year ago in Salem," Flynn said of the local chapter. "They're trying to do all the forums in the city, but I was under the impression they were working with the neighborhood groups."
So Flynn pulled out of the League event, he said.
"I decided to do the forum that's traditionally held," he said. "I didn't feel it was necessary to do two forums in two days, in my opinion, and I honestly didn't like the way the League of Women Voters was kind of taking over from the Ward 4 association."
The League, however, has a different take.
"Our goal is to create a neutral and welcoming environment for anyone who's interested in getting involved in local politics," said Jen Lynch, spokesperson for the local chapter.
That's why the organization "started to reach out to neighborhood groups in the spring to say, 'Hey, we're new, interested in partnering with you and are trying to bring a level of neutrality to some of the forums,'" Lynch said, "because in the past some have become quite heated."
That's something Flynn was also hoping to avoid.
"I said, from day one, that I was hoping this would be a friendly campaign season. I don't know much about my opponent but don't have anything negative to say about him," Flynn said. "...but no doubt, there are people upset that I'm going to stick to one forum."
And that's something that Cusick said will make Ward 4 an outlier this season.
"Rather with the chaos of things like having different meetings on different days, it was going to be uniformity," Cusick said. "That would've been a very good thing, but you're not getting that — and most of the other ward neighborhoods have acquiesced and are looking forward to this, but Ward 4 is an exception."