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Friends Hickey, Olney relied on each other during City Council campaigns

WATERTOWN — Early on during the campaign, Patrick J. Hickey and Cliff G. Olney III considered running for City Council as a team, putting their photos on either side of a 4- by 8-foot campaign sign.

But presumptive winner Mr. Olney, who knows that he could be a polarizing figure, surmised that he could cause Mr. Hickey to lose votes, so they decided to run separate campaigns in the nonpartisan race.

The strategy apparently worked. Mr. Hickey easily won his race for a two-year seat, while Mr. Olney leads by 73 votes for a four-year council seat, in unofficial results. That lead has been tallied based on early votes and Election Day votes. There doesn’t seem to be a possibility for Michelle Capone to overtake Mr. Olney with the remaining absentee votes.

During the campaign, Mr. Olney and Mr. Hickey found they agreed on many issues.

“We talked a lot,” Mr. Hickey said.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Olney shocked some local political followers when he ended up in second place in the five-way race for a four-year council seat and ahead of Ms. Capone, the establishment Republican candidate.

With Councilman-elect Hickey and possibly Mr. Olney taking office in January, it appears incumbent Lisa A. Ruggiero will have the majority on council that she had hoped for. She, too, had a convincing win for a second term on council.

Running their own campaigns, they took on Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith for his perceived lack of transparency in city government. They were highly critical of Mayor Smith and the way he kept information from council members and the public on key issues facing the city.

The race, Mr. Olney said, became a referendum on the mayor.

His attacks against Mayor Smith were calculated, Mr. Olney said, with the idea that they would result in responses that would end up making the mayor look bad and hurt candidates Amy Horton and Ms. Capone, who he supported in the race.

“And he went for it,” Mr. Olney said.

Both Mr. Hickey and Mr. Olney have run before for elected office. They are both enrolled Democrats. While Mr. Hickey ran an unsuccessful bid for council in 2019, Mr. Olney put his hat in the ring for mayor last year, lost in the primary and ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign.

Although they didn’t get to know each other during that campaign season, they became friends this time and grew to respect each other and what they could do for the city.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Hickey picked up his friend to go to their campaign party at former Mayor Jeffrey M. Graham’s bar on Pearl Street.

Candidate for Watertown City Council Cliff Olney, left, talks with former Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham as he waits for election night results on Tuesday at the Pearl Street Pub in Watertown.

They planned to be there at 8:15 p.m., but Mr. Olney heard that temperatures were going to dip below freezing, so he had to protect his plants in his front yard from the cold weather about to hit the north country.

For nearly an hour, Mr. Olney frantically tied sheets around the plants, including a 12-year-old Plumeria that he’s raised from a 6-inch seedling.

“Are you ready?” Mr., Hickey texted his friend several times before he was finally done and they could head to their celebration.

This fall, they ran drastically different campaigns, with Mr. Hickey relying on three-ring binders that contained facts, figures, data and numbers to help him convey his views on various campaign issues.

“He’s the man with the facts,” Mr. Olney said.

Meanwhile. Mr. Olney was known for his humorous memes on social media and cankerous attacks against the mayor on how he has handled city issues. As a campaigner, he talked about his ideas for the city, sometimes going into long dissertations about what he would do if elected.

Mr. Olney remains “cautiously optimistic” about maintaining his lead next week when remaining absentee ballots will be counted.

“I want all the votes to be counted,” Mr. Olney said, holding off declaring himself the winner of the second four-year seat.

About a month ago, Mr. Olney sent out 250 letters to Democrats about what to do about absentee ballots. He expects that the absentees will bear out similar numbers to Tuesday’s results.

Mr. Hickey got involved in local politics after he was unable to get the city to complete major repairs for several years on Pawling Street, a dead-end street that he’s lived on for 43 years.

Four years ago, Mr. Olney adamantly supported building a new pool at Thompson Park. When he expressed interest in running for council, he was told that he had little chance of defeating two incumbent candidates. He came in third in the race that year. “I thought I could build on that,” he said.

He didn’t give up getting elected. In his fourth try, he’s on the verge of that goal.

And now they’ll work together, they said, to do what’s best for the city.

They hope to resolve the longstanding labor dispute with the firefighters’ union, work to save the Flynn pool at the North Elementary School from demolition, look at the city’s sidewalk program and plan for the future for the city’s hydroelectric plant.

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