Ask David Kukucka and Mark Costilow about the tone of the Amherst mayoral race and they’ll say no punches are being thrown.
But there’s tension there. It’s friendly friction, to be sure, but heat nonetheless, as became evident when we sat down Monday to share a bite to eat and talk about the campaign atmosphere leading up to Nov. 3.
“It’s uncomfortable a little bit, but there’s been no jabs, no yelling,” said Costilow, who serves as safety-service director under current mayor David Taylor.
“It is what it is, especially with us sitting next to each other,” said Kukucka, who as auditor is seated to Costilow’s right during Monday night city council meetings. “We’re not throwing mud.”
The two men have known each other a dozen years but rarely come face-to-face outside of those meetings.
While campaigning, they’ve made a public effort to keep the race from boiling over. Since the May primary, it’s been gently simmering.
“Popularity contest” might be too trite a term, but both men said they’ve found potential voters are less interested in issues and stances than in personality.
What door-to-door canvassing has revealed is that swing voters want transparency. The public is hungry for honesty and openness.
When issues do come up on the campaign trail, voters ask the candidates to keep utility costs low, keep their hands off tax rates, support firefighters and police, and do what is necessary to keep basic services such as water lines and sewers in repair.
Kukucka is running as Democrat and Costilow as a Republican. Yet neither believes partisanship will play much into the final tally on election night.
In fact, Costilow said his signs are showing up in strength in traditionally Democratic yards and Kukucka said he’s found plenty of support among Republican households.
Kukucka said when he ran for city council in 1988 as a newcomer, he discovered how then-new subdivisions attracted younger families that largely considered themselves independents. At that point, the Democrat-Republican balance was roughly three-to-one.
Today it balances on a razor’s edge.
Amherst in recent years has voted marginally to the left, in many ways a reflection of the nation at large. Yet it has chosen Taylor, a Republican, for the past three terms.
“I don’t think party affiliation matters in this election as much as it has in the past,” Costilow said, his opponent agreeing.
Where they aggressively disagree — and where heat started to creep into the conversation — is in how they see each other.
Costilow painted his opponent as a staunch Democrat, a point with which Kukucka took issue, saying he in many ways has a conservative bent. Kukucka, meanwhile, said his opponent is solidly to the right; Costilow said he is a Republican but also his own man and acts on his conscience, not party politics.
Those labels need to be left at the door of city hall, said Kukucka: “When we’re up on those chairs and we’re working for the city, it shouldn’t matter,” he said.
Costilow said the race will likely be decided when voters compare the candidates’ backgrounds and experience: “It will probably be a gut decision at that point,” he said.
So who is more experienced?
Judge for yourself next week when the News-Times presents the candidates’ answers to a questionnaire detailing their qualifications, vision for Amherst’s future, and stances.
In the meantime, here is how the office-seekers describe themselves.
“I’m an experienced leader, an experienced problem-solver. I’m experienced at getting jobs done. I know the city,” said Costilow. “I’ve had time to work on making a difference and have made those hard decisions.”
Owning and operating the Amherst Cinema in an economy controlled by corporate giants means he knows what the city’s business owners face and need to survive, he said.
Kukucka, a medical equipment sales consultant, believes he has the edge.
“I believe I have the right experience for the mayor’s position, having both served 10 years on council, serving as streets and business chairman. I’ve been on that side – and then the last 10 years with the city,” he said. “I haven’t worked in a silo. I know the inner workings of the city’s services.”
They parted ways Monday disagreeing passionately on an array of issues but refusing to take shots at each other.
“I think some of my supporters wish we would dig up some dirt,” said Costilow, chuckling, and Kukucka joined in: “We’re just not that way. We’re not,” he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst auditor David Kukucka and safety-service director Mark Costilow sit next to each other Monday during a city council committee meeting.