November 24, 2003



Of mayors past, present and future

No shortage of contenders willing to take on city's problems

(Editor's Note: Given the recent election, the following article deals with issues related to prior Newburyport administrations, and those chosen to deal with them.)

The election of Mary Anne Clancy as mayor brings to a close, on Dec. 31, the tenure of Al Lavender after but two years in office. While he lost, many would have given him a second term. What will not be known is whether he would have been able to have achieved some of the goals he sought had he won. That is ever the case.

Mrs. Clancy comes to the office with a thorough knowledge related to the public school system, as well as a long-term appreciation for the problems and solutions faced by mayors during the various stages of the city's renaissance. Because her father, the late Francis T. Bresnahan, held a number of positions in the school system, including that of superintendent, she is conversant with the city's official relationships in the continuing challenge of exercising the art of the possible.

Incoming mayors inherit what is left on the desk by outgoing mayors and some of that has to be added to what they bring with them by way of initiatives.

Nor do mayors serve separately from members of the City Council. In this instance, that body, as well, will undergo major membership changes.

Historically, short-term mayors have had too little time to bring much by way of constructive change to fruition. One-term mayors are particularly restricted, which begs the question as to whether the city might benefit from a charter change that provided three-year terms for mayors, but that is best left to time and the voters.

It was my pleasure to have served this newspaper as a staff member through terms of office of five mayors, from Jack Kelleher to Peter Matthews.

Kelleher was the World War II mayor who served from 1941 through 1949, a period that speaks for itself, given the war and post-war period and trying to make do with the art of the possible under the most trying of circumstances. He was a theatrical man in the full meaning of that word, because not only did he have a commanding voice and presence, he produced many of the charity shows and the activities at what was then his dance hall cum roller skating rink at Plum Island. In his later years, he owned and operated the refreshment stand at the corner of what some of us still refer to as Three Roads, opposite Atkinson Common.

His nemesis was Andrew J. "Bossy" Gillis, whom he had defeated in the election of 1937.

Bossy, a hero to those of my teenage years because of his combative manner, was an in and outer, having served from 1927 to the end of 1931, and again, in 1936-1938. He would serve again in 1950-1954, when he was defeated by Henry Graf Jr., from 1954 through 1958. Gillis was elected the last time, 1958-1960.

These years set the framework for what would follow in the restoration and creative reconstruction of the city's business infrastructure.

The Gillis era was the connecting link to the societal and business realities of the past. Paradoxically, it was that stubborn clinging to old ways that created the vacuum that others would fill.

Bossy personified the political radicalism of class consciousness. He tipped over the applecart in ways combative, divisive and highly personal. In or out of office, he was a presence to contend with. He was honest, tough, resilient and, when aroused, politically cruel. In short, even for the times, he was incorrect. But he was loyal to his friends, and they were loyal to him. Whether he won or lost, he was always campaigning, and they were with him. His fiscal policy was clear and consistent. Don't spend any more than you have to for anything, and if that meant letting things go, they usually went. Transfer money from this for that, and campaign on low taxes. His political philosophy was simple and effective. Take care of your friends first, and never your enemies. What he could not do was to put the applecart back on its wheels.

Under the right conditions, his methods succeeded and he was re-elected. When they failed, it was largely because his personal behavior had become tiresome, once again, or enough voters wanted something done he would not do.

He was succeeded by Henry Graf Jr., co-owner with his brother, Bill, of Graf Bros. Express. Graf was encouraged to run by his fellow Rotarians when Bossy's obstinacy on a variety of issues became so corrosive to what the business community believed to be necessary to end the economic blight, they were united in the commitment that he had to go.

Not incidentally, given the current debate over the issue, Bossy's foot-dragging on the need for off-street parking was chief among the complaints.

Graf beat Gillis handily, and set about two major projects. One was to create a budget that did not lean on transfers that had, among other things, bled the excess and deficiency fund. Graf's policy was to do whatever was possible to provide for future needs so as to reduce the need for borrowing. The second was to employ professionals to create an equitable real estate tax on every property in the city. He accomplished both, as well as laying the groundwork for economic development that would lead, in 1965, to the creation of NAID, the not-for-profit corporation that would create the city's new industrial infrastructure.

When Graf chose not to run again for the 1958-1960 term, Gillis came back to challenge Claudius G. Pendill, whom he beat, to everyone's surprise except for Gillis' old arch enemy, Jack Kelleher, with whom he had made a secret deal. If Kelleher would help him to win Ward 6, Kelleher's home ward, Gillis would name him city treasurer and collector.

It wasn't until that appointment came through that this newspaper's editorial on the day after the election was answered. The editorial was only a large, black question mark that Bossy and his insiders must have celebrated.

Pendill's defeat provided Newburyport with the ideal leader in another cause, because he was chosen to begin the modernization of the Anna Jaques Hospital, a role that he would fill with distinction for many years.

This Gillis victory was to be his last hurrah, because City Council President Albert H. Zabriskie Jr. defeated him in the 1959 campaign, as the first of his generation to seek that office. Zabriskie was a member of a large and popular family, politically street savvy, as well as aware of the changes in relationships growing between local communities and those of the state and federal governments. People did not have to seek personal favors from a mayor as they once did, and there were funds to be found for city improvements in the higher bureaucracies.

On a larger scale, that would lead to the demise of the political styles of mayors like Gillis, and it coincided with his death two days after his defeat in this last race, within weeks of that of Henry Graf Jr., marking an era come to its end.

There followed all those who became mayors whose careers embraced the reconstruction years. All, save one, served more than one term. Zabriskie and George Lawler served two. Byron Matthews served five, the longest consecutive period of the modern mayors. Richard E. Sullivan served for four. Edward Molin had a single term but has been more active over many years than he could have been as mayor. Peter Matthews served for one term, sat out two years, and came back for two more terms after defeating Molin.

While these were the mayors involved in the primary redevelopment and related issues, so have their successors been during the aftermath, because the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, with now only a shadow of its earlier role, still functions four decades after its creation. The waterfront was a scene of intense struggle, its solution now enthusiastically embraced, but still a work in progress. Problems resulting from the solutions that found their way into the designated area and out remain largely among unsettled questions concerning parking.

And these are just some of the considerations that faced Al Lavender. They remain as part of the city's legacies of problems facing Mary Anne Clancy.

On a personal note, I want to thank Al for trying, and Mary Anne for wanting to try, even as I am grateful to all who have served and who want to serve what will always be my home town.

(Note: A subsequent Periscope will deal with waterfront development issues.}


Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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