Editorial: Disagreeing without being disagreeable

They came, they ate, they spoke — and not an ounce of mud was thrown.

Monday’s Mattituck Chamber of Commerce candidates night provided the first face-to-face meeting of the men and women seeking town office this year. And given all the animosity and angry rhetoric unfortunately evident on the national political scene, the polite, if pointed, exchanges were most welcome.

Believe it or not, the theme of this year’s campaign actually seems to be, “Who is most qualified to serve Southold’s citizens?” Imagine that.

In fact, there was little reason to expect anything other than civility in Monday’s debate since that trait is, thankfully, usually the hallmark of our local elections. With a few notable exceptions over the years, bare-knuckle brawling of the kind so prevalent in communities just to the west has not caught on here. We’d like to think that’s because Southold is a special place, untouched by corrupting influences from afar.

That may be true, but there’s no getting around the obvious: There’s no place to hide in a small town. Presidential candidates can have at it since they’re not likely to run into each other at the post office or in the supermarket after the polls close. It’s not required that candidates be fond of one another, although we submit there’s more of that out here than elsewhere. But in a small community like ours, they must — and usually do — recognize that today’s foe is tomorrow’s (and maybe even yesterday’s) friend, neighbor or customer.

Thankfully, the days of political Hatfields and McCoys are long gone. This is an unusual year, however, in that the Democrats, perennial underdogs, aren’t going down without a fight. They’ve been actively engaged against the long-dominant Republicans, who are in the unusual position of having to mount a vigorous defense of their control of town government and of all but two local elected offices.

Of course, an incumbent administration should have to work to defend its record. As impressive as the supervisor’s shellacking of his last opponent was — Scott Russell captured more than 80 percent of the vote — that was a sad commentary on the state of democracy hereabouts.

Having a civil discourse on the issues is a fine thing, but it doesn’t mean much if one party all but concedes before the campaigning gets going. That doesn’t seem to be the case this year.

It all comes down to this: Do this year’s challengers have what it takes to implement change? Does the electorate have an appetite for change? We’ll know soon enough.