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'The Mayor Who's There'

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Here's my profile of Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham:

Forget City Hall, the ribbon cuttings, the budget sessions: If you want to know Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, you come here.

You come here, the man himself says, standing behind the wood bar and its eight high-backed swivel stools, as he scoops out ice from a basin with his hand and dumps it into a glass. Come here to Fort Pearl, a tavern on the north-side street from which it takes its name.

Sarah Palin homages take up prominent real estate on the walls. A sign warns hippies to use the back door. For every bottle of liquor, there seems to be a photograph of a woman in a bikini to go along with it. The patrons at Mr. Graham's bar this night are middle-age hockey fans and a mannequin wearing short shorts, pink shoes and a tight Fort Pearl T-shirt, her handless arms rising provocatively in the air.

“Because I like doing it,” Mr. Graham says when asked why he's running for an unprecedented fifth term, after an unprecedented fourth term.

After a day of door-to-door campaigning, he's serving drinks – a few for him, too – and political wisdom.

“I'm in a unique position where I can do it. Most people aren't in my position. If you've got a real job, you can't do this,” he said.

Mr. Graham has enjoyed being mayor since 1991, and, save a four-year hiccup at the turn of the millennium, a majority of Watertown's voters have seen fit to indulge his insatiable political appetite.

But for the first time since 2004, Mr. Graham is facing a serious challenge to his reign, from a youthful, energetic fellow member of City Council, Jeffrey M. Smith. The election is Nov. 8.

Mr. Graham is optimistic. He's keeping it simple, with what the pundit-cum-politician himself calls a slogan: “I'm the mayor who's there.” For the past 20 years, Mr. Graham has indeed been there for Watertown, from his improbable run in 1991, weathering scandal and criticism, and presiding with a light hand over the city's affairs amid economic expansion and transformation in the community.

On many nights, he could be seen tending bar after four Jagermeisters, which he takes with two sips each from an intricate metallic shooter. Mr. Graham is on the tall side, with thinning gray hair in a combover. He has a gravelly voice suited for his noontime talk show on WATN-AM 1240, and a languid handshake.

Over the course of a month of reporting, Mr. Graham let a Times reporter follow him while he campaigned, chat at his bar and speak frequently via telephone, but he resisted efforts for an in-person, one-on-one interview. A meeting planned as a more intimate affair was moved, at Mr. Graham's request, from his Washington Street mayoral office to a Paddock Arcade eatery, two-tenths of a mile away, because, he said, he had a meeting downtown. He brought an associate, Linda J. Burkard, with him and they both answered questions amid the din of Jimmy Buffett music and loud children.

“He avoids the difficult issues,” said former Mayor Joseph M. Butler Sr., who beat Mr. Graham in 1999. “He enjoys the celebrity of it. He enjoys going out to all the openings and conferences and things like that. And he's good at that.”

MEDIA AND POLITICS

Born in California, Mr. Graham was 7 when his father died; his mother moved the family to Rochester soon after, and when he was 13, the family moved to Watertown, where his family had roots. (An uncle, Edward N. Redder, was once the Jefferson County Republican chairman.)

His interest in politics was apparent at an early age. As a boy, Mr. Graham attempted to memorize an almanac of presidential election results.

“While you were reading the Hardy Boys, I was reading the Theodore White series on the making of the president,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Graham graduated from Watertown High School in 1973. He attended Jefferson Community College for two years, and then enrolled at the University of Missouri's renowned journalism program, receiving a bachelor's degree two years later.

He took a job at the public television station in Watertown for what he thought would be a brief stopover until he moved on to bigger and better things. But the job turned into more than a decade of bouncing between local radio and television stations, mixed in with a brief stint with the Army as a civilian spokesman. He also opened a bar at 557 Pearl St. in 1985 with business partner J. Martin Kelly. The bar was called Melvin's when Mr. Graham decided to run for mayor in 1991.

“I just liked the whole give and take” of politics, Mr. Graham said. “I have to admit, I'm a political hobbyist.”

Mr. Graham's long-shot campaign in 1991 — a bar owner and former journalist with no political experience, against four-term City Councilman James E. Brett — was buoyed by slogans that, 20 years later, might just belong to his opponent. “New faces … new ideas,” one campaign poster from the era read.

Mr. Graham was assailed by an opponent who considered his ownership of a bar unbecoming of a mayor. Not everyone agreed.

“How was this country won during the Revolution? At a tavern,” says John L. Rice, a longtime friend and political associate of Mr. Graham. “A beer in one hand, a cigarette in the mouth and a gun in the other hand.”

Mr. Graham went on to win the race with 4,925 votes to Mr. Brett's 1,888.

WINNING CONVERTS

Mr. Graham won over many skeptics after he took office, including now-Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns, whose father-in-law, former Mayor Karl R. Burns, worked as Mr. Brett's campaign manager.

“I just did not feel that Jeff Graham fit the image of the city of Watertown,” Ms. Burns said. “I was very surprised he won. Over his time as mayor, he surprised me. Over time, he even won over my father-in-law, who was adamantly against him being mayor.”

Ms. Burns said the rapprochement was in part a result of Mr. Graham's decision to appoint her to the city Planning Board, despite her previous allegiance to Mr. Brett.

Ms. Burns said Mr. Graham has grown into his position over the years. When Mr. Burns died in 2001, Mr. Graham delivered the eulogy.

“Jeff Graham has made his mistakes, as we all have,” Ms. Burns said. “He's been involved in some things that I certainly don't agree with. But he is a good friend. I think he can relate to all walks of life in the city.”

Criticism of ribald antics remains a fixture for Mr. Graham. In 1994 he used city stationery to invite shock jock Howard Stern to Watertown. Just last year he supported a gubernatorial candidate who served jail time for promoting prostitution.

But the most persistent scandal that has dogged his career surrounds John R. Breen, whom Mr. Graham once endorsed for county treasurer.

Mr. Breen stole and gambled away millions of dollars of supermodel stepdaughter Maggie Rizer's fortune at several Watertown bars from 1999 to 2002, including Mr. Graham's, which by then was called the Speak Easy. In turn, Mr. Graham and the other bar owners all made 6 percent of every dollar gambled away.

Mr. Graham eventually surrendered his Quick Draw license to end a widening state investigation of his business. Three years later, Mr. Graham got his license for Quick Draw back. No charges were filed, and Mr. Graham was removed from a civil lawsuit on the matter.

Mr. Graham said he and Mr. Breen are now on good terms. He apologized to Mr. Breen, he said, after a September Times story on the mayoral race quoted Mr. Smith bringing up the incident.

Mr. Breen declined comment to the Times.

MAYOR HAS ONE VOTE

Watertown's form of government gives the city manager wide latitude to run the city's day-to-day affairs. The mayor is one voting member of a five-member council, which sets policy and hires the city manager and clerk.

“I try to respect the system that's in place,” Mr. Graham told a caller who was asking what could be done about crime during an appearance on WATN-AM 1240's “Live at Five” show. “If there's something I think is amiss, I bring it to the attention of the manager.”

His role in local government affairs is just one piece of the Graham political jigsaw puzzle. Consider his evolution: He has been a Democrat, a Republican and for one day, a member of the Conservative Party. His political inspirations are California Gov. Jerry Brown, for whom he was a delegate at the 1992 Democratic nominating convention, and Machiavelli. Soon after the 1992 election, though, he found where he truly belonged: the Independence Party.

It was apropos, said longtime associate Ezra S. “Ted” Ford, because much like Mr. Graham, “the Independence Party doesn't stand for anything.”

In Watertown, candidates don't run on party lines, and the parties themselves usually stay out of the fray. Mr. Graham said that has allowed a candidate like him to thrive for 20 years.

He ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly, and in 2000, came in third in a U.S. Senate race.

Mr. Graham says today that he ran because he was “in cahoots” with the campaign of the eventual victor, Hillary Rodham Clinton; he got the line only so that her Republican opponent, then-Rep. Rick A. Lazio, would not. He now calls it his “small part in Hillary Clinton's career.”

He no longer is involved in the Independence Party, which was beset by regional infighting, though he is still registered as such. The Jefferson County committee, which had provided Mr. Graham with latitude in picking candidates for county races and the clout that goes along with that, was disbanded in 2010.

Mr. Graham maintains his political relevance through his popular blog, which is updated regularly with his political musings from Libya to Ogdensburg. His hourlong talk show ruminates on everything except mayoral issues. His campaign, meanwhile, has focused on the fact that he is accessible and that taxes in the city have remained stable.

It's perhaps because of that ideological pinball that Mr. Graham can feel comfortable in any political environment. When the Occupy Wall Street protests came to Watertown in late October — with fewer than a dozen reticent protesters gently airing concerns on Public Square — Mr. Graham visited the group, taking photographs that later ended up on his blog. It was an effort to boost his “Mayor Who's There” credibility and part of his “political tourist” proclivities.

“What brings you out here?” a protester asked.

“I'm campaigning today,” he said. Then, correcting himself, he said, “I'm mayor for all the people.”

“These aren't necessarily municipal concerns,” he said. “Your constituents are all sorts of people. But even protesters have potholes outside of their houses.”

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