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Mayoral contest takes a turn for the polite

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Two words could sum up the mayoral debate Wednesday at Jefferson Community College: polite and local.

The candidates even clapped for one another after their opening and closing statements.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of light between us on issues like fixing up the streets,” Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham told Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith at one point, discussing the most local of all local issues: potholes.

The debate, between two JCC grads who are vying for the mayor’s seat at the Nov. 8 election, was a departure from a previous debate on public television, which included several acrimonious exchanges.

Not this time. As the candidates discussed debt reduction, recreation and marital status, the jabs were subtle, the disagreements polite.

“Both of them are definitely concerned for the community,” said Kyle R. Durham, 18, a major in criminal justice who watched the debate. “It’s going to be a tough race.”

On debt reduction, both candidates championed their respective positions. Mr. Smith drew a distinction between his position and Mr. Graham’s: Mr. Smith voted to use $1.1 million from the fund balance to reduce the city’s debt in March, while Mr. Graham voted against it.

“Do I want to take credit for it in the context as part of a political campaign? You bet,” Mr. Graham responded. “It’s been a good thing,” he said, before offering a caveat.

Mr. Graham noted that pension costs for public employees are expected to rise, which could bring “sticker shock” to Watertown.

“That’s a major expense that municipalities will have to pay,” Mr. Graham said. “We have to care for our dollars carefully. The debt reduction is a great policy. Hopefully we can continue with it. But we have to keep our eye on these other problems, too.”

Mr. Graham took a subtle swipe at Mr. Smith for his position on recreation programs, a key pillar of Mr. Smith’s campaign. Mr. Smith has advocated for a second sheet of ice at the hockey rink. Mr. Smith is what could be called, in political parlance, a “hockey dad.”

Mr. Graham said the city needn’t “focus in on one particular sport that may be a fancy of some, but look at everything.”

The theme of family has been a recurring one of late in the campaign, and it came up again Wednesday.

“It does matter that I am married and have a family,” said Mr. Smith, who has four children. “It’s not saying anything negative about not being married. But you look at things a little bit different when you have kids. Things mean a little bit more to you.”

Mr. Graham sought to turn his bachelorhood — he is unmarried and has no children — into a positive.

“I have the time. I can commit the resources,” Mr. Graham said. “Much has been said about people who do have children and don’t have children ... I think you can serve because you care and you’re passionate about the community.”

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