In 1993, then Democratic Attorney General Scott Harshbarger prosecuted Biff MacLean — perhaps the all-time favorite son of Fairhaven — over financial conflicts of interest involving his state Senate seat. Biff, also a Democrat, ended up resigning his office, forfeiting his $23,000-a-year state pension and paying a $500,000-plus fine for side deals connected to his position that were said to be worth a million and more to him.
In politics, turnaround was fair play, and when Harshbarger ran for governor in 1998, Biff took his considerable South Coast following and supported the late Paul Cellucci, a Republican and then the acting governor.
Biff’s political machine kept the Democratic vote down in Southeastern Mass. and Cellucci ended up narrowly defeating Harshbarger 51% to 47%.
Harshbarger later mused to The Boston Globe that perhaps he should have done what other Massachusetts Democratic politicians of the time had done and looked the other way when Mr. MacLean helped himself to lucrative deals that he came to by way of his elected office. For his part, MacLean, undoubtedly the most popular and powerful politician to come out of southeastern Massachusetts in the last half century, later said he regretted pleading guilty to the misdemeanor which, although it did not hurt his political power hardly at all, badly stained his legacy and the many people and causes he felt he had helped over his career.
You couldn’t help but think of Harshbarger Tuesday night when defeated Democratic sheriff candidate Nick Bernier reiterated his Hamlet act about not knowing whether he would endorse his victorious opponent, Democratic Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, for sheriff against 25-year incumbent Sheriff Tom Hodgson.
Bernier the week before the primary had said he didn’t know if he could endorse Heroux in the final election during a New Bedford Light edition of The Chat. He was upset, he said, over what he deemed a broken promise by Heroux not to go negative in the preliminary race against his Democratic colleagues. Heroux had blanketed the county with a powerful flier, favorably comparing his own corrections experience and fundraising ability to his two opponents in the three-way race. For his part, Heroux said it was not a personally negative attack but a fair side-by-side comparison of qualifications. He didn’t name his opponents — Bernier and retired Somerset Police Chief George McNeil — but he did use their initials.
So on election night when it became clear that Heroux had achieved a win over Bernier and McNeil — the final results were Heroux 40% to Bernier’s 32% and McNeil’s 24% — Bernier, an attorney who it’s fair to say is agile with political spin, once again said that he didn’t know if he would endorse his Democratic opponent. By Wednesday afternoon he said he would not, in fact, endorse Heroux, implying he could not trust him and referred without detail to “extreme” statements by Heroux’s supporters and the candidate himself when he was a columnist for The Huffington Post.
Bernier, who had made much during the campaign of the need to reduce what he described as a high Bristol County House of Correction recidivism rate under longtime Republican Sheriff Hodgson, said he wished Heroux well, even as he appeared to be trying to torpedo his campaign. On election night, he explained that at least Hodgson had never lied to him. That sounded like a personal affront is more important to Mr. Bernier than his principles about the high recidivism rate, or for that matter, what he described as the high suicide rate at the jail, which he had also spotlighted in the campaign. By way of comparison, Chief McNeil, who also went on record disagreeing with Heroux’s ad, said that nonetheless he would still endorse Heroux because he thinks it is so important for the county to remove Hodgson from office.
Bernier, a one-time business partner of disgraced Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, who was convicted, among other things, of defrauding his investors and extortion, and extortion conspiracy involving his public office, demonstrated once again during the campaign that he perhaps is not the most careful of politicians when he chooses who to cozy up to for political allies. Bernier voluntarily gave witness, without an immunity deal, to the federal government against former Mayor Correia as the feds homed in on the latter, after he says he realized the criminal activity of his partner. But he volunteered during a campaign debate at WBSM-AM’s SouthCoast Tonight that one of his most important endorsees in the sheriff’s race was County Commissioner John Saunders, long Biff MacLean’s right-hand man in the city of New Bedford.
Asked during The Chat why he would align himself with these characters, he said something to the effect that those are the people who are a big part of South Coast government. Bernier, who positioned himself as the moderate in the Democratic race, also talked about something that should resonate well with many conserative Democrats and independents in the region — that there is something good to be said for Hodgson’s philosophy that jail should be unpleasant. Whether it should be as unpleasant as some say Hodgson may have made it, however, will be an issue that may get debated in the campaign.
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Heroux, who was happy to have the endorsement of the progressive group Bristol County for Correctional Justice while he was building his primary campaign, has begun describing himself as neither a conservative nor a progressive nor a moderate but simply someone who wants to professionalize the county corrections system, including, of course, reducing the recidivism rate.
Bernier does not seem like a bad guy. But he is playing a brand of politics that may stick to him for a long time, at least outside of Greater Fall River, depending on how far he is willing to take it.
MacLean and Saunders, in some respects, are also not bad guys. Both of them have no doubt helped many folks both within and without their political operation. But as Biff used to say to me, there were plenty of folks who also didn’t like him because he hadn’t helped them personally. Even the best political godfathers can’t say “Yes” every time.
What’s discouraging about all this fallout from the Democratic sheriff’s primary, however, is the fact that genuine philosophical disagreements may get lost. Issues that Bernier said were important to him like how the county jails should be run; how rehabilitation programs should be operated; what is the role of the sheriff in undocumented immigration issues; and what is the level of patronage jobs that should exist in a county sheriff’s office that also includes a healthy administrative staff in its corrections, foreclosure and paper-serving operations.
Whatever you think of Tom Hodgson, he has a genuine, law-and-order philosophy, a tough-on-crime approach to his duties. Whether that is effective or not should be, to a great degree, the subject of the upcoming campaign. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of the issue.
Biff MacLean, of course, has long been a supporter of Sheriff Hodgson, who himself is a member of the extended Markey family, another of the South Coast’s big political families, well acquainted with the insiders in and around MacLean.
I’d like to say a word about Biff here, whom I’ve covered as both a reporter and a political columnist on the South Coast for the past 23 years. Biff is a rough guy, a smart guy, a very charismatic guy. People have genuinely loved him since he was a three-sport athlete at Fairhaven High and a young police officer and School Committee member. I believe in some sense Biff is a good man and I believe in other senses he did some pretty bad, self-serving things. He deservedly paid a price for them. Whether it was a too-low price or a too-high price is a question of philosophical justice. He went through the system. MacLean’s wife once wrote to the paper that he says his prayers at night, and I’m inclined to believe her.
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None other than former Mayor John Bullard, now a supporter of the Heroux campaign and Bristol County for Correctional Justice, once defended MacLean to me in a 2005 portrait I wrote of him around the time he lost his Supreme Judicial Court appeal on his pension.
Here’s the argument Bullard, who as mayor worked as an ally of MacLean during his heyday, made to me at that time. He asked why, if Martha Stewart could come out of jail and launch a nationwide TV reality series, as she had planned at the time, could MacLean not be able to work for the region he loves after his conviction?
“Does the fact you’ve violated the law mean that you have to be a hermit afterwards and never be involved in the public process?” he asked.
I’m getting far afield here but I’d like to make a point about the bitterness and the tribal nature of politics in this day and age. We are people who can disagree on big policy issues and about how to do things, but on both sides of the aisle we seem more and more driven to demonize those who don’t agree with us or who we see as having done us wrong.
That’s the wrong way to approach the issue of deciding who is the best person to run our Bristol County sheriff’s office and correction system. We can do better.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.