Campaigns leading up to Tuesday’s election in the city of Watertown show that the quest for power, even on the local level, often overwhelms sensibility.
The mayoral races have been particularly telling in this sense albeit not surprising. Just about anywhere in the United States, after all, truth and decency usually give way to potential victory at the polls.
Rather than maintaining a civil rivalry, Allison I. Crossman and Jeffrey M. Smith express little else but contempt for each other. Of course, we deserve better from people who seek positions of leadership in our community. But the tactic of cutting down opponents has a long history in our country.
Councilman Cody J. Horbacz, himself a mayoral candidate, expressed the frustration people feel over the tenor of the race. Crossman said that Smith’s campaign has strayed from important issues.
And both candidates speak the truth. Campaigns that dwell on negativity prove unsettling to many people.
However, such measures also work at undermining confidence in challengers. Voters repeatedly state that they loathe personal attacks.
At the same time, though, they respond to these practices in the very manner that operatives have planned: by viewing their competitors more scornfully. While criticizing an opponent’s flaws may cause some voters to wince, it exposes the shortcomings that candidates possess.
And those running for mayor understand this. Crossman objected to Smith pointing out her apparent lack of interest in city issues until now. But yet she tried to conceal this fact because she knew it would reflect poorly on her candidacy.
Crossman previously stated that she voted in recent city elections. She even gave details about whom she supported.
However, Smith obtained Crossman’s voting history from the Jefferson County Board of Elections. It showed that she failed to vote in any city election before this year’s primary.
Crossman said Smith’s comments serve only to distract voters. But if she believed residents wouldn’t care if she never participated in a city election until she decided to run for mayor, why not admit this upfront?
“It’s an unfortunate mistake on my part,” she said when confronted with this revelation during a forum between the candidates last week. If her claim is true, how often does this phenomenon occur? Does she frequently imagine events that have never happened?
Odds are good that Crossman simply lied about her voting history and hoped no one would notice.
But she can’t confess to such a tactic, particularly at this stage of the race.
For his part, Smith comes off as too committed to carrying out a scorched-earth campaign.
There’s a difference between presenting yourself as the best candidate for a particular office and persuading voters that your opponent is the worst candidate, and Smith appears to have chosen the latter path.
Naturally, he pounced on Crossman’s questionable voting history.
But he’s also tried to make hay out of how often she attends City Council meetings and her participation in events such as the Miss Thousands Islands Pageant.
Crossman replied to Smith’s comment on attending meetings by reminding him that they are televised. People necessarily don’t need to show up at City Hall and position themselves to be captured by the TV camera — as Smith seems to do — just to keep up on what’s going on.
And many people found his “this isn’t a beauty contest” statement rather condescending and sexist.
While Smith has touted his experience in public office and discussed how he would address various issues, he’s determined to win by grinding Crossman into dust.
He spends a fair amount of time looking for ammunition.
And some believe that Jude R. Seymour, Republican commissioner for the Jefferson County Board of Elections, has willingly assisted him.
Seymour confounded the mayoral candidates, county officials and common sense this summer by declaring that only one candidate — Smith — could be certified as a primary winner.
Crossman and Horbacz tied for second place behind Smith, and Seymour insisted the city’s election law allowed for only two candidates to be placed on the ballot.
He seemed to have wanted his pal to be the only candidate in the race, but state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky put the brakes on any such effort in August by ordering all three candidates to advance to the general election.
Some people also believed Seymour was up to no good when he released a copy of Smith’s Freedom of Information Law request for Crossman’s voting record. Black River resident Mike Flynn told me that Smith’s signature was redacted from the FOIL document, although Smith was clearly identified as the FOIL applicant.
The Watertown Daily Times made the same FOIL request and received the same redacted document.
Seymour said he was following state election law by preventing Smith’s signature from being made public and, thus, subject to copying by ne’er-do-wells.
There is a provision of the law that pertains to boards of election protecting signatures.
But Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government, said this doesn’t appear to apply to FOIL requests.
Seymour said he and other county officials reconsidered this decision and decided to send us Smith’s FOIL request without redacting the signature.
Seymour probably got some bum advice, and I don’t believe there was anything underhanded about his initial action.
It seems to have been an honest mistake but one that nonetheless cast doubt on Smith.
This isn’t unreasonable given the perpetual hunt in this campaign for damaging information.
A letter we published last week provided yet another example.
In endorsing Crossman for mayor, a woman inadvertently misspelled her own name on our website form to submit a letter to the editor. So we printed her letter with this misspelling. This raised concerns that the woman may not exist and that the letter could have been sent in as a stunt by someone on behalf of Crossman’s campaign.
A few people affiliated with opposing campaigns informed us they couldn’t indentify anyone with the name we published as being registered to vote in Jefferson County. I spoke with the woman and discovered that she’s a real human being!
She used her maiden name on her letter but is registered to vote under her married name. We weren’t punked, and this case is closed.
However, this demonstrates the mindset that many have used in approaching this mayoral race: an obsession with digging up dirt and a willingness to believe the worst about rivals.
Sadly, this says a lot about the people running for public office here as well as those of us who vote for them.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.