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Coverage from WRVO Public Media on the 2015 election including: races in Syracuse and other parts of central New York, the Southern Tier, Watertown and the North Country, and more.Listen to WRVO online, or catch up on regional political news and more by following the WRVO news department on Twitter.

Watertown mayoral candidates agree on issues, spar over questions of trust

Julia Botero
WRVO news
WWNY-TV's Jeff Cole moderated the debate between Mayor Jeff Graham (left) and challenger Councilman Joe Butler Jr.

There’s about three weeks to go before Watertown voters will decide who will be the city’s next mayor.  City Councilman Joe Butler, Jr. is challenging incumbent Mayor Jeffrey Graham for Watertown’s top job. Both candidates have a lot to lose in this race. If Graham isn’t re-elected, his 20-year tenure as the city’s mayor will be over. If Butler is defeated, he’ll lose his city council seat.

The two candidates hashed out where they stand on the city’s most pressing issues Wednesday afternoon in the race’s only debate.

Graham has repeatedly made the point during this campaign that as the mayor of Watertown, he’s incredibly accessible. As a single man and owner of the Pearl Street Pub, a local bar, he says he has the flexibility to be practically anywhere, anytime.

“People have expectations of their mayor. It isn’t just a job that you do on your lunch hour and so on; it’s a job that you do all the time,” Graham said.

City mayor is officially a part time job in Watertown, but Graham says for him, it’s a full time commitment. Graham claims his challenger, Butler, won’t be as available. Butler works as an investment consultant at Community Bank and is raising a family. Butler disagrees.

“My employer knows the amount of responsibility this will take and they’re okay with it. I’m a point in my career where I can do that, I have the flexibility to do that so that’s not an issue for me really," said Butler.

As for the big issues, the candidates basically agree on most of them. New development projects are underway in downtown at a time when vacant houses are popping up around the city. Both Graham and Butler say new apartments will create a healthy amount of choice for buyers and renters.

And both candidates agree the heroin epidemic needs to be addressed with more treatment for addicts. 

“If you want more enforcement on drugs, gee, we’ve been doing that for years, I’m not sure it’s working. I think compassion and treatment and encouraging better decisions angle will probably yield better results,” Graham said.

But while their views on issues were mostly in line they continued to attack each other’s character. Butler said postings on Graham’s popular blog, The Mayor’s View, raises questions about how much the mayor should be trusted.

“You know, I don’t have a blog. I didn’t create that problem for myself. A blog can be a way to promote and it can be good at times but it can also be a way where malicious comments and sensitive information can be released and it comes back to bite you in the tai,” said Butler.

Butler is referring to a posting on Graham’s blog weeks ago that revealed what a city council candidate and captain of the fire department says was classified information about his work history. The Mayor’s been accused of purposefully sharing that information to sully the candidate’s chances for election.

Graham defended his blog, where he recently commented on Butler’s decision to meet with top officials of the firefighter's union this week. The city is looking to cut costs at the department. Graham accused Butler of sharing confidential information. Butler said he simply let the fire department know he was on their side.

“We cut no deals, there was no negotiating. It was simply I'm not an enemy, I'm a supporter and If I'm elected to mayor, you'll have an ally in the office,” Butler said.

Some people in Watertown have said the city has declined under Graham’s leadership. Graham says that this election is basically a referendum on his tenure as mayor.

“I think what you’ll find generally is you’ve got two people, who’ve served the public for years, understand issues  and have a sincere desire for a better Watertown. It’s just an idea in my mind if my style of leadership is something that people feel comfortable with,” Graham said.

Watertown's public TV station, WPBS, is broadcasting the entire debate between incumbent Graham and Butler on their website.  The debate will broadcast in full on Friday at 8 p.m.