The man with the birch-white brush mustache seated before the bacon and eggs is a name brand around here, but they heard about him also in Los Angeles, even Jerusalem and who knows where else. With his distinguished looks he could be a tweedy scholar surrounded by books and awe-struck graduate students, but instead he’s seized the spotlight outraging the libs, sending out inmate work crews shackled together at the ankles, once saying he’d send inmates down to help build the Wall, the one that was going to be bankrolled by Mexico.
The inmates-build-the-Wall story was big news years ago. The wire services blasted it all over the planet. The Wall never was completed. Mexico never paid. The inmates never went down there. The “chain gangs,” as the headlines said, have been unchained. The man goes on.
It’s autumn 2022 and it’s another run for Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, six years after he strolled into a fourth term after no Republican dared challenge him in the primary, no Democrat braved the general. This time there’s competition: Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, a man with 10 years in public service and experience crunching numbers for prison systems.
Since Hodgson was appointed to the job in 1997, make this his fifth pursuit. Maybe best not to say “campaign.” That might suggest that Hodgson is a “politician.” Hodgson insists he’s not that.
In a recent appearance on WBSM radio, an unfriendly caller said “you’re the best politician down here on the South Coast,” and Hodgson replied, “I’ve never considered myself a politician.” During commercial breaks, Hodgson’s radio ads featured an announcer saying Hodgson is “not a politician.”
Now it’s a late-September morning in the Courtyard, a sweet breakfast and lunch spot off the state route in Fairhaven, and it’s “Breakfast with the Sheriff,” a chance for constituents to gather around and chat. Hodgson, who is 68 and looking energetic, whatever the headaches on this job, sets aside the home fries, leaving the bacon and eggs over easy, and answers questions with certainty.
Hodgson handles the public performance part of the job with the skill of a, well, the dread word seems apt here: “politician.”
He’s got the smoothness and certainty, and who can resist that? Sociologist Ernest Becker never heard of Hodgson, but in the 1970s he wrote about the “infectiousness of the unconflicted personality.” Right.
Whatever the complication, Hodgson has an answer. He delivers with assurance, sometimes with the support of the best information available, but not necessarily. Either way, he answers, often with a selection from his robust repertoire of anecdotes. The former House of Correction inmates who have stopped him in the street to thank him for helping them straighten out their life (one was picking up his daughter at school after doing the HOC “parenting” program). The women who baked cookies for inmates who did some manual labor. The immigration detainees who once gave him a “standing ovation,” weeks before they trashed the detention center, weeks before the melee that later led to the sudden end of his agency’s immigration activity.
In case anyone was wondering, he never thought about not running again. He’s old enough now to retire from the $171,900-a-year job, maybe spend more time in the Azores where he and his wife bought a place years ago. But not now.
Not even after 25 years on the job. Not after all the tumult, the lawsuits accusing him and his officers of neglect leading to inmate suicides, the suits claiming brutality, the state attorney general reporting that officers used excessive force against detainees during that melee. And, of course, the decades in a blue state with the deck stacked against an outspoken Trumpster.
Leave now? While he’s still so fired up about the job, when there’s so much to do?
“I still have the passion,” he says. “I’ve never been more motivated, given what’s going on in this country.”
Note a favorite Hodgson talking point there: perils from the southwestern border. Illegals bringing drugs, violence, sex trafficking, all of it coming soon to a street near you. Unless The Law steps in. And who better than the sheriff, whose job, Hodgson says, ranges well beyond county jailer.
“Sheriffs across the country,” he says, his eggs undoubtedly cooling, “we’re best situated to bring resources together …The breadth of this job is all encompassing, complex, critically important for public safety.”
But can he hold it for a fifth six-year term?
This day won’t hurt the effort. It’s a jewel of an early autumn afternoon and Hodgson is out on the canine training course on the grounds of the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth. The day is about dogs, and who doesn’t love dogs?
Between the lines, though, the day is also about Hodgson’s much-touted expansive view of the role of a sheriff, which his critics don’t love at all. Some hear in that talk about an “all encompassing” job troubling echoes of “constitutional sheriff” advocates. They say the sheriff, a position tracing back to England and calendar years with three digits, is the lawman above all others.
The “constitutional sheriff” movement is often associated with White nationalism and with organizations such as Protect America Now that has been labeled a “far-right anti-government” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Check the PAN website for lots of guys in cowboy hats. Hodgson doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, but he’s on the site, listed as a member of the advisory committee.
He says he only joined recently, doesn’t get with the extremist “constitutional sheriff” thing. He often says the sheriff is the “chief law enforcement officer in the county,” but he insists he means that not as one who usurps, but who cooperates with others, who shares his stuff.
The dogs, for instance.
Lots of them here on the grass, some wearing vests that say “PET ME.” The two pups being celebrated today are joining the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office K-9 crew, but these are not like the dogs who were sent in to batter immigration detainees with “muzzle hits” during that disturbance in May 2020, as the attorney general reported. Far from it.
Soon trained to deliver warm fuzzies, “Hero” and “Jack” are to join the stable of four “comfort dogs” in the department, part of a 38-pooch Bristol County Comfort Dog Coalition dispatched to schools, hospitals, summer camps and other places to buoy up peoples’ spirits. Just days before, in the aftermath of a car accident in which two Attleboro High School students were killed, coalition dogs were dispatched to the school to give young folks and teachers a lift.
“They may seem like little things,” Hodgson says, as TV crews gathered around the podium to report the feel-good story. “But these are things that make a difference in the lives of people in our community.”
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A small stretch of the sheriff’s reach, the dogs and training paid for with a donation from the Friends of Jack Foundation. No one’s going to complain. Well, almost no one.
Stephen Oliveira of Swansea wrote to the New Bedford Light about it after Hodgson appeared before the Seekonk School Committee in September with one dog and one K9 officer.
“Why is the person that is supposed to be in charge of the prison spending money going to schools with ‘comfort dogs?’” Oliveira wrote. “I mean it’s a nice gesture , but a civilian can do that and that officer that is with him could be….well…. an officer at the prison.”
The argument dogs the sheriff. His opponent says the sheriff’s job is mainly running the jail, not dabbling in law enforcement, not meddling in immigration and the security of the distant southwest border.
In 2000, The Standard-Times did a story about Hodgson building an “Empire,” as the headline put it, adding 100 employees, more than doubling the department’s vehicle fleet in three years, adding a mobile emergency command center, establishing what the story called “the largest law enforcement agency in Southeastern Massachusetts.”
What’s the problem? Hodgson said.
“We are completely within our constitutional mandate,” Hodgson said at the time. “Counties were actually established before the state. And I’ve never been a guy who believes before we can do anything we have to get a consensus. I’ve kind of been the guy to go out and do it.”
Within limits, adjusting at times when the Long Arm of the Sheriff strikes a sensitive nose. He’s backed off sending deputies on street patrol, as he did in 2003, raising objections from the then-mayor of New Bedford. And gone are the chained work crews that first appeared in the summer of 1999, raising an uproar over the Jim Crow South overtones of the whole display. They got chased out of one community after another.
More than 20 years later, Hodgson emphasizes partnerships with local communities. But still, he says, there’s a lot more to this job than “care and custody” of 600-800 inmates on any given day. Look at the big picture, he argues. So much a sheriff can do.
“The fact that some choose not to exercise the extent of their authority, that’s their decision,” he says.
But can he keep doing it?
The money will help. Some $217,000 cash on hand in the Hodgson campaign account as of the end of September, nearly five times his opponent’s total. It helps to have had no opponent six years ago, to keep raising campaign money and not spending it. It helps to have nights like this one in late October at White’s of Westport, with about 450 people gathered at $50 a head.
They’re lined up by the score out the reception room door to shake his hand, as the staff uncovers the heated trays of pasta marinara, Italian meatballs, three varieties of chicken tenders, as the music gets going. “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” is the evening’s first tune, perhaps not such a great campaign theme, but this actually isn’t a campaign event. It’s the Annual Cocktail Reception for the sheriff, and it’s been going on for years, election year or not.
Dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, yellow-pattern tie, Hodgson is standing at the head of the reception line with his wife, Jo-Anne Mello Hodgson, a former New Bedford public school principal, for handshakes and hugs. It’s part social occasion, part fundraiser, part office party. The unofficial eyeball count from four people who work for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office is that half to two-thirds of the crowd are fellow employees, each contributing to the campaign fund.
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Some know him better than others. Some have seen the best of him, the random acts of kindness, the greater sense of order he brought to the jails. Some, if the lawsuits and the attorney general’s report are to be believed — all lies, Hodgson says — have seen the worst, the bully in a badge watching his officers brutalize immigration detainees.
“I’ve always supported him,” said Mark Rodi, a 61-year-old correctional officer from Fairhaven who has been with the department for 32 years, before Hodgson took over.
“We had Sheriff (David) Nelson before that. But he was a little on the liberal side,” said Rodi, who remembers the change when, literally, there was a new sheriff in town in the summer of 1997. Gone were the exercise weights, which inmates were using to pump themselves up, becoming more of a danger to officers, Rodi says. Gone were the televisions, which inmates were watching, and, on at least one occasion, tossing off the top tiers in the midst of an uprising, Rodi recalls.
Hodgson made headlines when he banished those amenities, when he started charging inmates fees for such basic things as haircuts, medical services. A judge barred the fees, but the weights and the TVs never returned. In Hodgson’s view, letting inmates do their time hanging around lifting weights and watching TV was setting them up to fail. Without the recreational outlets, he figures, inmates are more likely to take part in the rehabilitative programs, the classes meant to help them do better when they get out.
Hodgson, said Rodi, was “more controlled, more conservative, yet still fair. There was basic structure, like we teach our kids.”
Kevin Crabtree has for years been teaching some of those classes for inmates. Asked for a good Hodgson story, he tells about his father, a former U.S. Marine who was thrilled when his son went to work for the sheriff. Hodgson heard about his father and had an idea. In 2010, when William Crabtree was 80, Hodgson had him brought to this office to “deputize” him, conducted a little ceremony, even gave him a badge.
“That meant so much to my father,” Crabtree said, adding that he asked Hodgson to speak at his father’s funeral, five years later.
“I’ll never forget what he did for my father,” he said.
In an interview days after the event, former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank tells a good Hodgson story. Hodgson tells it himself often in response to critics who say his constant hammering about “criminal aliens,” as he often puts it, is pandering to racism, but Frank the progressive Democrat recalls it in more precise detail.
He remembers that between 1999 into 2001 he and Hodgson and Republican U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois worked together trying to moderate a harsh provision of an immigration law that took effect in 1997. The measure gave the government the authority to deport noncitizens who were documented, perhaps living in the country for years, if they were arrested for an array of minor crimes. They could be deported even if the offense took place years before.
It took a few years to see the havoc this caused for local families, especially in New Bedford’s Azorean community. As sheriff, Hodgson saw it, and wanted to help. Frank knew that as a conservative Republican, Hodgson could be an effective lobbyist with conservative members of Congress.
“He did a good job trying to persuade them this is too harsh,” Frank said. “We were making progress.”
Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Forget any effort to moderate the treatment of immigrants. No revision of that portion of the law ever made it to a vote, Frank said. Nonetheless, Hodgson at that time was singing a different tune on immigration.
“Then, he was very pro-immigrant,” Frank says.
He’s not sure what happened since then. Hodgson would say that there’s no inconsistency. It’s always just been about the rule of law, he says.
From a distance, hearing the tough talk, hearing stories of abuses behind the walls, people get ideas about him, Steve Souza, the superintendent of the Jail and House of Correction, says that night at White’s.
“They think he’s Attila the Hun,” Souza says. “He’s tough on crime. You give (inmates) what they need, but you don’t give them the world.”
Arthur Hirsch, a former staff reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is a freelance correspondent with The New Bedford Light. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.