BELFAST, Maine — Two men — each with a different leadership style and vision for the city — are vying to be mayor of Belfast.
Incumbent Mayor Walter Ash, who has been active in municipal and state government for nearly 30 years, is being challenged by Jim O’Connor, a businessman who helped found the Maine Celtic Celebration and has been active on the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
In Belfast, the mayor runs City Council meetings and also votes to break ties.
The 66-year-old Ash, a familiar presence around town in his Eastside Garage tow truck and blue work shirt, said last week that he wants to be re-elected as mayor because he has a passion for helping people. He’s finishing his second term, and said he counts among the city’s positive changes in the last few years its continued economic growth despite the recession.
“We seem to be a destination now for a lot of people,” he said. “Our storefronts are full. One of my goals is to keep the momentum going. You need the momentum for the economic development.”
Belfast is in a privileged position, he said — something that has become very clear to him as he is out towing cars in the rest of the county and even farther afield.
“You ride through towns and say, are they open for business or aren’t they? It seems to be pretty bad,” Ash said. “Times are pretty good [in Belfast] right now. I’ve been here through some of the times that weren’t good. I can’t imagine that there’s any reason why [voters] shouldn’t re-elect me. If there was, I wish they’d call and tell me. But they don’t.”
The former Democratic state representative said that his management style is intentionally low key.
“What you see is what you get,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been accused of being laid back. I try to keep the council on an even keel. There haven’t been any knock-down, drag-out battles.”
Ash said he prefers meeting people face-to-face or talking with them over the phone than doing business by email.
“I’m not a suit. I’m Walter,” he said. “I’ll talk with you. I’ll help you if I can.”
O’Connor, 62, moved to Belfast year-round with his wife, Janis Stone, in 2004. Before that, they lived in Orange, Mass., near Amherst, where he owned a funeral home.
The couple had always been interested in moving to Maine, and Belfast came onto their radar after former credit card giant MBNA sparked many changes to the city in the early 1990s.
“I believe the greatest asset here is the people,” he said. “There’s a sense of community here that I believe got lost from many other places years ago.”
Since their arrival, O’Connor and Stone have run Interiors by Janis Stone, a successful interior design and decoration firm on Northport Avenue. O’Connor served on the board of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce for six years and thinks that it’s important for the mayor to serve as a public face for the city. He envisioned sending sympathy cards to people affected by tragedies or notes of welcome to new families and businesses that come to town.
“I think it’s so important to have a mayor who’s active in the community, who attends events and promotes the community,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. I’d like to find ways to reach out to people in the community.”
O’Connor, a calm, jovial man with a shock of white hair, said that in his former career as a funeral home director, he learned very well how the little things can matter the most to the grieving families he helped.
“I think the mayor can do that,” he said. “I don’t mean to criticize the current mayor, but it’s just not his style to do that.”
He said that he would like to keep a focus on supporting the small businesses of Belfast and keeping the city’s great qualities healthy.
“Belfast is a special place because the people have been here a long time,” he said, adding that the longtime residents have recently been joined by newcomers and retiring baby boomers. “There are things that are going to change here, whether we want them to or not. I hope we always maintain our sense of community. I want to see the community grow and prosper.”
Belfast residents will choose the mayor on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8. Voters in Wards 1 and 2 will cast ballots at the Belfast Boathouse; voters in Wards 3 and 4 will vote at Belfast City Hall and residents of Ward 5 will vote at the Methodist Church on Mill Lane. Ballots can be cast between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. To determine the correct ward, call the Belfast City Hall at 338-3370.