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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.

Mud flies as Graham, Butler fight for a chance to be Watertown mayor

Julia Botero
Mayor Jeff Graham (left) and Councilman Joe Butler (right) have accused each other of taking cheap shots at their character in order to win Watertown's mayoral election.

On November 3, Watertown voters will choose the city’s next mayor. Incumbent Jeff Graham is competing against two-term councilmen Joe Butler for the chance to lead Watertown into the next four years. Long-standing mayor Jeff Graham could be ousted out of a position he’s held for 20 years. As the candidates push to convince voters they’re the right kind of leader, mud is flying.

Graham says when he looks around Watertown, he likes what he sees.

“I think the danger sometimes with campaigns is that people feel they need to fixate on negative things and try and make you think that the people in office and the community as  a whole is in bad shape and that’s not necessarily true,” said Graham.

He says for years Watertown has been repairing streets, revitalizing downtown and trying to make the city a fun place to live. But Butler says the mayor hasn’t worked with city leaders to push through any real vision for the city. Butler says he’s confident he can build a consensus among the city council.

“With fresh new faces there’s some opportunity to work that has been absent in the past to work with young people and focus on three or four things each year to make Watertown better, to improve where we are right now,” said Butler.

Graham says he’s all about improving Watertown, too, and over the years he’s proven he can work with new council members. Graham has made it a point this campaign that his flexible schedule as a bar owner means he’s always available to his constituents. Butler works full time as a financial consultant and has a family. He says whether he’ll have enough time to do the job isn’t an issue.

“I don’t have any grandiose ideas that I can be mayor with the same schedule I have as a councilmen,” said Butler.

And Butler points out that if elected, he’ll rely on communicating face to face with his constituents and not through a blog. Graham runs a popular blog where recently an anonymous person allegedly shared confidential information about a city employee who’s running for council. The candidate, fire captain Todd Demar accused the mayor of intentionally allowing the information to go public. Police are now investigating. Graham says he thinks Butler worked with Demar on a mission to ruin Graham’s chances at re-election.

“People work together all the time, that not necessary a bad thing but I think in this case it just drove the negativity really high,” Graham said.

Butler denies he conspired with Demar.

One thing the candidates can agree on is this incident has taken attention away from the issues. When it comes to what most residents care about, the heroin epidemic, vacant houses and city finances,  Graham and Butler have slightly different ideas on what to do.

For example, with downtown development, Graham says focusing on attracting people to live downtown will then bring business. As for what those businesses should be, he says that’s up to  developers.

“If you have a $20 million or $60 million structure  you’re not going to want to see it empty and I think it’s the economic motor that will drive it.”

Butler, on the other hand, says people need a reason to go downtown first. “We don’t play enough downtown. We live there some of us, we work there some of us but we don’t’ play there enough to be honest with you."

He says he’d like to see more events that make people come out during all seasons, even the dead of winter.

As the city’s long-standing mayor, Graham says he’s always maintained a core of supporters, despite the bickering between him and his challenger.

“He and his surrogates can gin up all sorts of accusations and slogans, but I think people with judge Jeff Graham on what they know about Jeff Graham,” the mayor said.

And Butler says for this race, he’s relying on his own network of hometown friends and family.

“People know me. They know who I am, they know what I represent and I think that is why I do get some support when I go door to door," said Butler.

Both candidates are risking their political future in this close mayoral race. Whoever loses Tuesday’s election will have to give up their current role in city leadership.