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Watertown write-in barely loses election

By Jaclyn Reiss
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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He started his campaign as a write-in candidate just two weeks before the election, standing on a single-issue platform, but Mike Mandel still came within 91 votes Tuesday of winning a seat on Watertown’s Town Council.

Mandel received 1,354 votes in the election, placing fifth in a race for four at-large seats.

Councilor Stephen Corbett won the final spot, finishing fourth with 1,445 votes, while Councilor John Donohue ran third with 1,458 votes. Councilor Susan Falkoff was the top vote-getter with 2,177, followed by Councilor Anthony Palomba with 2,090.

Incumbent Mark Sideris ran unopposed for Town Council president, gathering 2,434 votes.

In other races on Tuesday’s ballot, School Committee incumbent Christopher Beach lost to two challengers, Julie McMahon and Michael Shepard. Beach stood 53 votes behind Shepard. Incumbent Eileen Hsu-Balzer will return, as she received the most votes - 1,663.

Town Clerk John Flynn said 16.65 percent of Watertown’s registered voters cast ballots.

Mandel decided to mount a write-in campaign two weeks ago, after Walmart announced plans to set up one of its big-box discount stores at Irving and Arsenal streets.

Concerned residents cite increased traffic, noise and sound pollution, property devaluation, and threats to small business owners as main problems Walmart would bring to Watertown.

“I think it’s a fantastic victory,” Mandel said Wednesday. “Even though the polls didn’t show me winning, it’s a victory for the fact that my candidacy raised awareness for the crisis that Walmart poses to the community.’’

Mandel said he thinks he garnered numerous votes because he symbolizes the anti-Walmart movement in Watertown. “If I wasn’t a write-in candidate, or if I got organized earlier on this, I’m pretty sure I would’ve won,“ he said. “If the issue is still on the table in two years, I will certainly consider running again, because somebody needs to have a strong voice to keep this from happening.’’

Mandel said he was considering asking for a recount, but at midweek had not decided whether to file the paperwork.

The town clerk’s office said that as of 2 p.m. Thursday, there were no petitions before the Election Commission for a recount.

Mandel said that he thinks at-large incumbents Corbett and Donohue finished fourth and third in the election because they either supported or would entertain the idea of Walmart opening in Watertown.

“Isn’t it pretty clear? [Corbett] is the only one that made a clear statement that he was in clear support of a Walmart proposal, so that’s what the voters rejected,’’ Mandel said. “We didn’t do it in enough numbers to get him off the council, but write-in is almost impossible to wage successfully.’’

Corbett said he was misinterpreted. “I said I wanted to see a specific proposal, and I was misinterpreted entirely - I looked like a proponent of Walmart, which is not the case,’’ he said. “I’m a proponent of economic development. Nothing should be rejected before it’s even presented. It should be presented and debated in a civil manner.’’

While Corbett said he was happy to be reelected, he said the close results troubled him.

“It does not give me a good feeling. It was a scary situation, to be honest with you, and it’s unfortunate for the town that one issue overtook the entire town and overshadowed the entire election. I don’t think that’s a good thing,’’ he said.

Although Mandel said he is considering a recount, Corbett said he does not feel threatened.

“I’m not losing sleep over it,’’ he said. “Whatever happens, happens.’’

Donohue thanked Watertown voters who traveled to the polls, and said he is honored to represent local constituents. “There is no place for a one-issue [councilor] in this town,’’ Donohue said. “I hope Watertown will see I’ll do the right thing in all aspects, not just one particular point.’’

Donohue said he understood the dislike surrounding Walmart, but he aims to separate the retail giant’s politics from the benefits it could bring when a formal proposal arrives before the council.

“My personal beliefs are one thing, but my representative beliefs are a different thing,’’ Donohue said. “That’s why I have no say - yes or no - about the potential development. Nothing has been brought to the table yet to develop the property.’’

Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo declined comment on the election. Earlier in the month, Restivo said that a Walmart store in Watertown would create up to 200 jobs with competitive wages, give residents the option for affordable groceries, and help smaller businesses boom.

“The louder voices in these debates don’t necessarily represent the majority opinion, and that fact is made clear every time we open a new store as thousands of residents, none of whom attended council meetings or wrote letters to the editor, show support by just shopping,’’ he said.

Restivo said representatives from Walmart would meet with residents to hear their concerns before submitting an official proposal to the town next year.