NEW BEDFORD — All five at-large City Councilors cleared the preliminary election, among them mainstays with name recognition and years of experience in local politics. But a sweep for incumbents in Tuesday’s election hardly seems a sure thing.
Vote totals have slipped for a few longtime councilors. Complicating this year’s race is a candidate who is an incumbent in one way, but not another. Councilor Scott Lima represents Ward 5, but he’s giving up that seat to wade into the at-large pool.
Lima, with the backing of Mayor Jon Mitchell, finished the preliminary just 48 votes behind at-large Councilor Naomi R. A. Carney and 61 votes behind Council President Linda Morad.
Voters across the city will choose five councilors from among 10 candidates on Tuesday. Incumbents also include Ian Abreu, who has finished first in the last two final elections; Shane Burgo, who is seeking his second term; and Brian Gomes, who has served on the council since 1991 except for a one-year hiatus, and is now seeking his 15th two-year term.
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Four challengers are competing with the six current councilors. Bruce Wayne Duarte is trying to get back on the council after serving three consecutive terms representing Ward 4 until 2014. Guelmie Santiago, a former human resources manager who runs her own business services company, is seeking political office for the first time, hoping to become the council’s first Latinx member. Devin Byrnes, who owns Destination Soups on Union Street, also has never held elective office. Joyce Rowley touts her experience as a community planner in New York State, but has not held an elected position.
The 10 contenders hope to work as legislators with a portfolio different from their ward colleagues. They’ll handle ward-centric phone calls and emails about sidewalks, potholes, trees, but they’re also meant to consider matters that concern the whole city of some 101,000 people.
Absent a specific geographical turf, some at-large councilors have staked out subject specialties suiting their interest or experience.
Linda Morad, who works for St. Anne’s Credit Union, has taken particular interest in city finances. In candidate forums she has emphasized the value of her experience in city government. “You do need people to know how to navigate the system,” she said in a candidates’ forum. Morad has been an at-large councilor since 2013 and served from 2003 to 2009 as the Ward 1 councilor.
Naomi Carney said in an interview she considers constituent service her specialty. She emphasized in an interview that she steadily attends community association meetings all over the city to keep up on neighborhood happenings. She said she wants to continue advocating for road maintenance spending and said the city charter should be revised to give the council more budget power. As it is, the council can only cut the budget drafted by the mayor. Carney has served five consecutive at-large council terms since 2013 and one term from 2004 to 2006.
Brian Gomes, who works as the property supervisor for Whelan Associates, which owns the Bank of America building on Pleasant Street, has long taken an interest in public safety. After decades as a councilor, he said in an interview that “the work is never done,” and he stressed his focus on controlling taxes and water and sewer rates and securing federal funds for sewer improvements. He finished third in the preliminary election.
Shane Burgo, occupying the progressive end of the council’s political spectrum, is the first councilor to lead the new Special Committee on Affordable Housing and Homeless Affairs. He has proposed a ballot referendum question on rent stabilization. In the preliminary election he finished second.
Ian Abreu said his work in constituent service helps explain why he’s finished first in the last two at-large races. He said he decided to run for council in 2015 because he sensed a “disconnect between certain people at City Hall and the people” of the city, he said in an interview. He said he’s tried to address that by being responsive to emails and phone calls.
Scott Lima said one reason he decided to pursue the at-large seat is to focus more on the waterfront, which is not part of Ward 5. First elected in 2017, Lima said he was drawn to the waterfront immediately and now wants to spend more time as a councilor supporting efforts to cultivate ocean-related technologies and new industries. He’s a member of the board of the New Bedford Ocean Cluster, a nonprofit devoted to developing the port’s economic potential.
Among the challengers, Bruce Wayne Duarte had a decades-long career with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, retiring as a supervisor of the now-closed detention center that the sheriff ran under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In a candidate forum this year, he said the city should encourage more residents to consider police work, as the New Bedford Police Department is running dozens of officers short of a full complement.
Guelmie Santiago has acknowledged in candidate forums that she has a lot to learn about city government, but she wants to concentrate on representing city residents from Spanish-speaking countries, who make up about 25% of the population. “I am who I serve,” she likes to say. She’s stressing her personal story of coming to New Bedford 25 years ago and raising three children as a single mother while developing her own business.
Devin Byrnes, a Salem native who went to school at UMass Dartmouth, then returned to the area in 2008 to open his restaurant, said this is a pivotal time for the city, with the offshore wind industry using the port as a staging area and commuter rail expected to arrive by summer 2024.
“I feel like this is an important time for New Bedford,” Byrnes said in an interview. “It might benefit the city to have some new ideas, new perspective.”
Joyce Rowley says fresh perspective is needed in the emerging discussion of rent stabilization, which she favors. She says the voices of tenants should be a bigger part of the public debate.
Correction: This story was revised on Nov. 1, 2023, to correct employment information about City Councilor Brian Gomes.
Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.