NEW BEDFORD — The last time Joe Lopes faced a young political newcomer in a City Council election, it didn’t go well for him. But today it’s a different ward, and Lopes said he’s learned a few things.
The 2023 contest for the Ward 5 City Council seat pits Lopes, 49, a former six-term councilor, against Zach Boyer, 30, a labor activist turned professional advocate for senior citizens. Boyer ran for the council seat in 2021 but has never held office.
They’re competing in an affluent ward west and south of downtown that regularly tops voter turnout results. It’s overwhelmingly residential — perhaps more so than any other ward. And it’s home to big names in local and state politics, including Mayor Jon Mitchell, former Mayor Scott Lang, state Rep. Antonio Cabral and state Sen. Mark Montigny.
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Lopes took up residence there in February, just weeks before the ward seat opened. In March, Councilor Scott Lima announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election in the ward. (Lima is now a candidate for one of the five at-large seats.) Lopes said his move was a coincidence.
The executive director and CEO of MassHire Greater New Bedford, Lopes stresses that the councilor’s job is largely about building relationships. He argues he’s shown he can do that, serving four times as council president during his 12 years in office, starting in 2010.
Boyer, planning director at Coastline Elderly Services, says the council needs fresh blood.
Boyer, who has worked as a labor union advocate and is backed by the progressive organization Coalition for Social Justice, argues for some politically neutral positions and others leaning left.
He wants more pedestrian safety measures on the streets around Buttonwood Park. The area needs more controls on vehicle traffic at crosswalks, he argues: signs, signals, and markings on the street, to alert drivers to be more aware.
Boyer, who has worked for senior advocacy organizations since 2019, argues that either Ward 5 or downtown needs a new community center for older people, to replace one at Buttonwood that last year became a senior day center. (A day center provides more structured programs than a social drop-in location.)
Boyer said he favors “inclusionary zoning” ordinances that would provide incentives for for-profit developers to build affordable housing.
Lopes agrees with Boyer on pedestrian safety around Buttonwood Park. He favors inclusionary zoning, as long as it’s part of an approach that uses other planning tools to ensure that what gets built is right for a particular area. He mentioned “form-based code,” a type of land-use regulation focusing on the specific type of building rather than the use.
The two candidates part ways on questions surrounding addiction, specifically sober houses and an array of “harm reduction” practices meant to make drug use safer. These include needle exchange programs and places designated for supervised drug-taking, including intravenous use.
Lopes said the main trouble with sober houses is that they’re subject to no regulation other than a voluntary system, with a statewide nonprofit doing inspections and certifications. As a council member, he said, he would press the city’s state delegation for new rules governing sober homes.
He’s opposed to needle exchange and so-called “safe injection sites.” He said he doesn’t want New Bedford to encourage a South Coast version of “Mass and Cass,” the Boston enclave of homeless people and prevalent drug use at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Boyer said he favors so-called “safe injection sites,” which are not allowed in the city, and needle exchange, which is not illegal, but opposed by Mayor Jon Mitchell and not openly practiced.
Boyer said he’s troubled by recent public discussions of sober houses in New Bedford, which he said included language that shuns addicted people.
“We need to treat it as a public health issue,” he said. “If we don’t do it, what are we doing? We’re ostracizing people from our community.” Boyer said he may be taking a risk by saying so: “It might be politically dangerous to run on that.”
Indeed, especially in Ward 5. Residents of the Moreland Terrace area — one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city, and home to Mitchell and Lang — recently organized opposition when it appeared that plans for sober houses were taking shape in their midst.
One of those houses, on Hawthorn Street, is slated for a residential mental health treatment center, not a sober house. The other, on Ash Street, was purchased by the owner of a company that runs sober houses, but plans for the property are now not clear.
Boyer could ask his opponent about the hazards of facing a contentious issue in a ward election.
Months before the 2021 election, Lopes appeared well-ensconced as Ward 6 councilor. Pandemic restrictions were lifting that spring; people were eager to gather again; and the new Cisco Brewers Kitchen & Bar on East Rodney French Boulevard became instantly popular for food, drink, and music on the waterfront in an outdoor beer garden.
On came the crowds, followed by lots of citizen complaints about traffic, parking and noise.
Then came an upstart 20-something political challenger from a well-known family, Ryan Pereira, appealing to the discontent. He staged an upset that November, topping Lopes 707 votes to 550.
Lopes said he didn’t see civic storm clouds gathering. In retrospect, he said, he should have.
“I don’t think there was enough public outreach,” he said of Cisco’s opening. “It shouldn’t have been a wait and see approach. It should be: ‘What do we do now in anticipation of it?’”
He also held a campaign event at Cisco, but he said he does not regret that decision and does not believe it was a factor in the outcome.
Lopes said he stands by his record in Ward 6. That includes his work on constituent service, notwithstanding a dig by Boyer at their last candidate forum at Keith Middle School.
In a departure from otherwise congenial candidate discussions, Boyer said he found Lopes’ claim of strong constituent service ironic.
“If that were true,” Boyer said, referring to Lopes, “he wouldn’t be running in Ward 5. He’d be seeking re-election in Ward 6.”
A fair point? No, Lopes said.
“I can call countless people in the ward who would say they’re upset” about his absence, Lopes said — “people who have said Ward 5 is so lucky.”
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