Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham is headed for an apparent victory while Ogdensburg Mayor Bill Nelson is hanging on to a nine-vote lead with absentee ballots to be counted.
How'd they pull it off?
Mr. Graham was able to convince the voters of Watertown that things were going well — the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument. Mr. Nelson, on the other hand, was able to convince voters that although things are very broken, he understands their frustrations and is willing to act.
Throughout my reporting on Mr. Graham's race against Councilman Jeff Smith, very few people told me that Mr. Graham needed to be run out of town on a rail.
He's doing a good job, they said. But it's time for a change.
That's not the type of fervor necessary to remove a four-time incumbent. The people in Watertown know Jeff Graham. He's going to put his foot in his mouth, say things that aggravate people, and continue to be a bar owner. And yet, after 20 years, Watertown has not been swallowed into the fiery underworld.
In addition, the people who like Mr. Smith realized that even if they voted for Mr. Graham, Mr. Smith would remain on City Council. I never found that argument persuasive — being mayor is different from being a member of City Council — but many of the people I spoke with did.
Mr. Smith, too, has people who don't like him, though they are not as legion or vocal as Mr. Graham's detractors. At the end of the day, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.
I was asked a little while ago whether it's possible that Mr. Smith pulls this out. It is possible, and the "concession" that he gave last night has no force of law. If he comes out ahead when the elections commissioners certify the results, he's the mayor, no matter what he said Tuesday night. But unless there was some transposition error at the polls, it's going to be an uphill battle. He needs about 70 percent of the absentee votes to break in his favor, and Mr. Graham says he worked the absentees pretty hard (I know at least one of them, because it was on Mr. Graham's blog: Dave Mance).
So I don't think we'll have to deal with a Dewey Defeats Truman from today's edition, which declared "Graham keeps post as mayor." And if that does happen, I've got screen shots of other newz outlets that called it.
Now, the Ogdensburg race is a little bit tougher to analyze, since I'm kinda far away, but I used to work up there and know a great many of the players, so here's what I can tell you: Republican Mayor Bill Nelson wouldn't have had a chance against independent candidate Jack McGrath if Mr. Nelson hadn't called for city manager Art Sciorra's resignation.
Mr. Nelson was strongly counseled to cut Mr. Sciorra loose in the wake of the 819 Knox St. scandal, where a family was allowed to live in a city-owned home rent- and tax-free for three years even as it put taxpayer money into renovations.
Mr. Nelson waited a month and a half to call for Mr. Sciorra's head — the revelations were first reported in mid-August, and it wasn't until late September that Mr. Nelson called for his firing. He might have had a more restful night sleep if he had acted more swiftly.
In unofficial results, Mr. Nelson is leading Mr. McGrath 1,236 to 1,227, with absentee ballots still to be counted. Journal reporter Chris Robbins heard anecdotal evidence of a higher turnout in that election. When people are scraping just to get by, they're going to be really angry to see a family that didn't have to worry about rent for quite some time. Whether Mr. Sciorra directed it is largely immaterial to their anger.
(Update: A reader correctly notes that Mr. Nelson did himself a lot of favors in 2010 by helping save Ogdensburg Correctional Facility. Then-Gov. David Paterson proposed closing it; Mr. Nelson was a big part of the effort in saving it. A fine point; many people in Ogdensburg love their prison, and it probably helped earn him the endorsement of Chuck Kelly, a columnist for the Advance News.)
So if patterns hold up, it was a decent to good night for incumbents in the north country.