"I see who's coming out to vote, and I've got a good feeling about it," Don Stewart said as he stood with four supporters holding signs for his campaign outside North Andover High School. "But I'm keeping my lips shut."
Stewart, 70, had reason to be optimistic -- a couple hours later edging out incumbent by a shocking 12 votes.
Outside Looking In
Stewart has lived in his entire life in North Andover. He was born in the same neighborhood in which he lives now. He and his wife Mary have been married for nearly 50 years and raised a family in town -- including the dozens of foster kids they took in, many of whom still visit and whom he still refers to as his children. Stewart attended North Andover High School and worked mostly blue collar jobs before starting his own business. It's rare to find someone in North Andover who doesn't know him.
Don Stewart has been the quintessential townie.
But in recent years with local politics, he's been more of an outsider.
Team Stewart spent election day at the front end of the school's driveway, far away from the other candidates. That's how he ran in the campaign -- distancing himself from the incumbents in a race that at times became contentious.
"I've always stood way out here, every year," Stewart said.
Stewart -- a tall, husky, plainly-spoken man with glasses, a white beard and a heavy, old-school north-of-Boston accent -- attends almost every Board of Selectmen meeting already. He chats with people in the halls and then sits in the audience, observing quietly with his arms folded, watching the proceedings with an eyebrow arched. He's become as much a part of the meetings as the table at which the selectmen sit.
"The only difference since I've won is that now I'll be sitting behind the desk instead of in front of it," Stewart said in his familiar gruff demeanor at his house after the election results named him a winner.
Stewart is no stranger to town government. He was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 1991 and served on that board for 15 years before being voted out in 2006.
He then decided to try things on the schools side and ran for School Committee in 2007 and lost. Then he ran for the Board of Selectmen again in 2008, and he lost; then again in 2009, and again he lost.
"There's no shame in losing," Stewart said proudly. "Every time I run for something, I'm winning in my own way. It's rewarding, personally."
In 2010, Stewart would face a different kind of fight. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he stayed out of the election to dedicate his attention to treatment. Later that year, Stewart would beat that cancer.
And months after that victory, his years of campaigning would pay off and he would win a seat back on the Board of Selectmen.
"So I beat two things this past year," Stewart said. "I beat cancer and then won selectman."
How he won was just as interesting as the victory itself. Stewart was thought of as an underdog. Nardella and fellow selectman had incumbency on their side -- they sat on the Board during a time when North Andover was faring much better than other cities and towns ravaged by the national economic collapse. The selectmen had presented three consecutive consensus budgets -- budgets which were agreed upon by the selectmen, School Committee and Finance Committee. The town hadn't had the massive layoffs that other communities had.
Stewart to offset revenue losses and keep budget cuts at a minimum. Watson and Nardella opposed that idea outright, insisting that keeping the town's bond rating with the fund intact would be better for the town in the long run.
And Stewart didn't have any big plans. Nardella and Watson were promoting a new concept for a Facilities Management Department to streamline operations as well as sewer installment for Route 125 to foster business development there. Stewart cautioned against the sewer idea and had no bold plans in his platform.
But in this race, Stewart did have an aggressive team behind him. Managed by local resident and political activist Phil DeCologero, Stewart had volunteers working around the clock to get his message out and, on election day, to get their voters to the polls.
"All I did was show up and hold signs," Stewart said modestly in his living room as a dozen or so party guests celebrated in the kitchen with beer and subs. "They [his team] dressed me, got me ready and ran the show. And Phil -- that guy did a fantastic job."
Phil DeCologero poked his head into the room upon hearing his name.
"I did not dress him," DeCologero laughed, adding that he did, however, see Stewart in his underwear when he came over to borrow some tools and had forgotten about Stewart's early bedtime.
On election day, Stewart's growing confidence came when he noticed something as he stood outside in the cold far away from the other candidates. There was a low turnout, something that often favors a challenger. And more importantly, there seemed to be a lot of elderly voters and union voters showing up at the polls -- those seemed to make up Stewart's voter base in this election.
The local firefighters union, which had endorsed Watson in 2008, endorsed Stewart this time. And Stewart had a lot of support within the police union as well. Perhaps the debate over the budget played a role in that, with Stewart favoring tapping into reserve cash over massive cuts to various departments. And the Senior Center is slated to get a whopping 17 percent budget cut.
"People I never got along with, the schools, Fire Department, Police Department, the elderly, they were all there with me this time," Stewart said.
Whether Stewart's new voter base will stay intact through his upcoming term on the Board remains to be seen, but Stewart is taking things day by day.
"I'm not gonna stay more than 15 years this time," he said.