I felt like I knew Bob Cabral even before I arrived in front of his Beetle Street home to start walking the triple-decker neighborhood where he lives — just north and west of the sprawling urban renewal district that the city has long called Hicks-Logan.

Of all the candidates, Robert Cabral is the easiest to get to know. 

Bob Cabral speaks with Jack Spillane:

When I first contacted him, he began texting me almost immediately, telling me about himself and his plan to help the city’s homeless. 

It wasn’t long before he began outlining his campaign plans, explaining how he intended to knock on a lot of doors himself, how for 25 years he ran the well-known local chimney sweep and construction business, Ashaway Hearth and Chimney. 

Later I learned that he had subsequently managed the CVS store in the hardscrabble neighborhood on lower Ashley Boulevard, and most recently been a project manager for Steppingstone, a substance abuse treatment business. That led to Cabral writing a proposal on homelessness, which focused on stuff like hiring an overall homelessness czar and purchasing portable small residences for something called a “pallet village.” Those are respectable ideas although his proposal is not the kind of carefully-researched and well-documented study necessary to move a city government.

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Cabral, who is 58, is currently out of work and said he’s dedicating himself fully to working this campaign before seeking a new job. He’s taking a chance to see if he can knock on enough doors, leaflet enough cars, to possibly win this seat and perhaps shake this city government up a bit. He describes himself as a middle-of-the-roader. He seems conservative on economic policy and liberal on social issues. “I’m not a politician. Never was. Never will be,” he said. “I’m a businessman.”

Cabral has lived in the near North End for a couple years and before that in the South End for three years. Before that he was in the suburbs.

The businessman didn’t seem interested in spending time on the residential triple-decker side streets — he didn’t know that Our Lady of Perpetual Help Polish church had recently closed, and what effect that might have or not have on the surrounding neighborhood. No, he quickly wanted to pull me down to the grittiest part of the Hicks-Logan area, where the half-decaying waterfront factories and worse are.

Cabral motioned to the broken-down streets and half-empty mills just north of where the new MBTA station is being built and said the city needs to do something before the train gets here.

“So now you’re coming in from Boston, you want to go visit the Whaling Museum. And you look to your left, and you walk a little bit and you see a run-down, crappy part of town, what are you going to think?” he asks.

Cabral is right, of course, although it’s not remotely realistic that the long lack of investment in Hicks-Logan is going to be solved before the train finally chugs into town at the end of this year. No, that puzzle would have had to have started being solved 10 and 20 years ago. But maybe the mayor’s latest urban renewal district will finally be the spark that ignites it for the not-too-distant future.

Like Jason Ventura, Cabral didn’t seem to be exactly sure what F&B Rubberized was.

I told him about the associated Land Locker Inc. once buying up some of the surrounding residential properties, and Mayor Mitchell and other mayors trying to relocate the business to the industrial park or Shawmut Avenue or anywhere but the highly-developable Hicks-Logan. That’s when I could see Bob’s businessman blood beginning to simmer.

“I’d love to talk to this guy. You know what, he was here first,” he says.

When I tell Cabral that I believe some of the turn-of-the-20th-century businesses were probably here just as long as the tire business, if not longer, he revises, but he’s still with F&B.

Cabral motioned to the broken-down streets and half-empty mills just north of where the new MBTA station is being built and said the city needs to do something before the train gets here.

“He’s been in business here. So the city decides he wants to do something and they’re gonna muscle this guy out,” he says, “If it was me, I’d try to do it in a more tactful way.”

It’s not clear to me that Mayor Mitchell hasn’t been tactful, or even the other mayors who have tried to deal with F&B before him. The F&B owners themselves have had negotiations with the city about how to eventually move, but nothing has ever worked out.

God love Cabral. I’m not sure he knows a lot about the facts here, but he seems to have honest, decent small-businessman principles.

“And nobody’s respecting him either,” he says of the F&B owner he doesn’t yet know. “Honestly, you start to see action in this neighborhood, then these businesses are gonna move.”

Cabral is probably right about that.

Also like Ventura, he couldn’t identify the site of the big Thanksgiving Day fire on the next block of Washburn Street two years ago. But for his campaign he had gone and talked to some of the neighbors on that same block and said they were Portuguese. There was no doubt in my mind he’s the kind of guy who could talk to anybody and enjoy himself while hatching an idea or two at the same time.

“They’ve been ignored,” he said of the neighbors. “The streets are unkempt. You go around the corner, it’s even worse.”

Cabral and I also went over to Weld Square, across the road and underneath the exit from I-195, in search of residents. The voter turnout in that long-struggling neighborhood is almost miniscule, and Cabral said everyone that he talked to there said no politician had ever come around the square in front of Giammalvo’s before. Good for him for going there.

Which brings me to my favorite story of this Ward 3 campaign season. It’s a lost soul, up-from-the-bootstraps story that I personally was impressed by. 

I asked Cabral how he started Ashaway Hearth & Chimney and this is what he said.

He was in the National Guard, just a young guy and he wanted to start a business. He saw one of those magazine ads that said you could start your own business for $1,500. But that wasn’t going to work for him.

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“What I ended up doing — I didn’t even have the $1,500 — so I ended up calling a local chimney sweep, an old guy, and I said, ‘Hey, how are you doin’? How about if I work for you for free all summer on weekends. And he said ‘Sure.’”

And that’s how Bob Cabral learned the chimney sweep trade and built up Ashaway Chimney.

“When it came around to the fall, I had $500, I bought the cheapest van I could buy, went and got all the tools,” he said. “It was so bad, you know old cars, I used to have to have them turn the ignition (for me).”

He subsequently built Ashaway into a successful business, at one time with several locations.

“It’s humble beginnings. You know how I used to try and get business, I used to open the phone book and just start calling people.”

Cabral said he eventually lost the business amidst a bankruptcy after the 2008 recession and a subsequent divorce. But his son is still operating the business under the same name. He has the contacts.

That story, I’m here to tell you, is a working man’s tale. It’s a humble story. It’s a small business story. It’s an American story.

It’s a story of this unusual man who sees his local government and who believes it is dysfunctional. And he would like to do something about it.

Editor’s note: Information about the circumstances surrounding Bob Cabral’s loss of the business Ashaway Hearth and Chimney was amended on Jan. 26, 2023. This is one in a series of walking profiles with each of the seven candidates in the Jan. 24 preliminary election for Ward 3 city councilor. Read Jack Spillane’s overview of the race with links to all seven profiles.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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