Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux won the Democratic primary for Bristol County Sheriff with large margins in New Bedford, Dartmouth and Attleboro, though numbers were still being finalized across Bristol County as of 11 p.m., Tuesday. 

“This night is about the volunteers who participated,” Heroux said at a campaign gathering in New Bedford. “If it wasn’t for them I’d be at home right now.”

Heroux said his primary opponents, Fall River attorney Nick Bernier and retired Somerset Police Chief George McNeil, ran their campaigns with a similar vision: “create a modern jail system focused on rehabilitation.” 

But Bernier, who won big in his hometown of Fall River, remains undecided about whether he will officially endorse Heroux: “I’m not sure yet,” he said Tuesday night. “I think [the primary voters] just gave Tom Hodgson another six years.” 

The Democratic candidates aligned on most issues during the primary campaign, but Bernier and McNeil released a joint statement accusing Heroux of sending an overly negative campaign mailer. The mailer, a glossy two-sided sheet, featured a chart that compared the Democratic candidates in “Campaigns Won”; “Number of Donations”; and “Employees Managed,” among other categories.

Bernier said that Heroux broke a promise to not negatively campaign during the primary. “Tom Hodgson — I disagree with him —  but he’s never lied to my face. Paul has.”

“Any time you mention or refer to your opponent’s name — and especially in a written mailer going out to like 30,000 to 40,000 households — there’s negative connotation,” Bernier said when the three candidates were featured on The Chat, a live conversation with The New Bedford Light’s columnist Jack Spillane.

McNeil, however, has said that he will endorse Heroux in the general election; he wants to “make sure that Hodgson doesn’t get back in.” But McNeil had also taken issue with Heroux’s mailer. “It’s very condescending,” he said previously to The Light.

“This is a winnable race, but I really believe that only one of us is the strongest candidate,” Heroux said. “We can’t implement this shared vision of rehabilitation unless we win.”

In the general election, Heroux said he will continue with the same campaign strategies. He said he plans to knock on doors and promote his background. Rather than a “tough on crime” approach, he said Tuesday night that he wants to be known for using a “smart on crime” approach. 

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Heroux has served as a state representative, elected to three terms in Bristol’s 2nd District from 2013 to 2017, though he left his third term to start as Attleboro’s mayor. He enters the race with professional corrections experience as an assistant to the commissioner of the Philadelphia prison system and a director of research in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. 

If elected sheriff, “care, custody, control, and rehabilitation,” are what Heroux hopes to focus on. He holds a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and plans to interrupt the “revolving door” of recidivism by offering more job training programs. 

Heroux grew up in Attleboro, where his parents operated a drug store, before graduating from the University of Southern California with a degree in psychology and neuroscience. He has also received master’s degrees in international relations and public administration, in addition to one in criminology. 

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The November race to oversee Bristol’s department of corrections will be the first election since a high-profile 2020 investigation that led to the closure of a federal immigration detention facility in Bristol County. Hodgson has characterized that investigation and the subsequent consequences as entirely “politically motivated,” pointing to a previous record of passed audit inspections before Attorney General Maura Healy — now Democratic candidate for governor — cited “excessive” uses of force in an incident that “violated the civil rights” of detainees.

Hodgson hasn’t faced a Democratic challenger since 2010 when he beat longtime state representative from Bristol’s 9th District, John F. Quinn. In the four elections since his 1997 appointment, Hodgson has also handily defeated Fall River City Councilor Leo Pelletier in 2004 (by almost 20 percentage points), and bested Joseph B. McIntyre, the state representative from Bristol’s 12th, among a somewhat split field in 1998. 

Hodgson, before becoming Bristol County sheriff, served in law enforcement in Maryland, ultimately working his way up to lieutenant in charge of investigations, he said. After retiring from law enforcement, he moved to New England while working in sales for a firm that his brother recruited him to. In 1988, he won a seat as an at-large city councilor in New Bedford, and would serve into his third term. In that role he began working on behalf of the sheriff’s department, he said, helping to run various internal affairs. And during his third term as city councilor, Gov. William Weld appointed him Bristol County sheriff. He is now the longest-serving county sheriff in Massachusetts. 

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“Tough on crime doesn’t suggest that you don’t believe in rehabilitation. They’re one in the same,” Hodgson told The Light about the phrase that both he and Heroux have used to describe current policies. “I will never waver from that. If you violate the law in our county … we’re locking you up.”

Hodgson acknowledges that mental health has become a major issue, too, saying that many inmates “don’t belong in a prison setting, but sheriff’s offices have been turned into, unfortunately, mental health institutions. It’s not the ideal setting.” 

At the polls, Hodgson didn’t face any primary challenger, but many voters still went out to support him. Rich Bardsley, 58, who sells electric equipment, said that he appreciates Hodgson’s experience. Daniel Ortiz, 43, who works in the city of New Bedford’s water department said Hodgson is “stern” and “sturdy.”

Voters supporting Heroux, like David Conlon, 61, a salesperson, said he liked the Democrat’s background. Others, like Manuel Rodrigues, 71, who’s retired, just wanted Hodgson out: “he’s been there too long. After so many years we need to get fresh ideas.” 

The general election where Hodgson and Heroux face off will be on Nov. 8.

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