On the South Coast, politics is often an insider game.

At least it has been in the past, but in this Tuesday’s primary election, maybe a little less so.

Here’s the recent history of Greater New Bedford elections: A respectable and well-known candidate is elected — most times a moderate, but sometimes a clear progressive or even a sharp conservative — and then they coast to re-election for years and years, if not decades, after that.

That’s the case with Sheriff Tom Hodgson, who after being appointed in 1997 to the job of running the Bristol County’s correction system by Gov. Bill Weld, has managed to hold onto it through four consecutive election cycles and 25 years.

That’s also the case with state Rep. Bill Straus of Mattapoisett and Chris Markey of Dartmouth.

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Straus, a former law partner of one-time Mayor Scott Lang, first won election to his Fairhaven-centered district 30 years ago and has rather easily been re-elected ever since. Markey, the son of former mayor and judge John Markey Sr., is a comparative short-timer, having only been in office in his Dartmouth-centered district for 11 years, but he’s had little opposition during that time.

Even District Attorney Tom Quinn, the junior of the incumbents and the scion of a longtime Dartmouth political family, in this year’s competitive South Coast elections, has been around for quite a while. It’s been almost eight years since Gov. Charlie Baker appointed Quinn to succeed Sam Sutter, who himself had been in office for eight years before that.

Incumbents, with their ability to address constituent issues and services, are able to raise campaign funds much easier than challengers. Some of them do a good job and others not so much, but they always have the advantage of incumbency.

Many of the local incumbents have long worked together and know and support each other. The state’s campaign finance filings of the two incumbent Democratic state reps with contested races, Straus and Markey, show the names of John Saunders and William “Biff” MacLean on their contributor lists. Saunders and MacLean have long been at the center of a South Coast political machine. “The Machine,” by the way, is bipartisan, with both Saunders and MacLean also giving to the Republican sheriff Hodgson.

Despite regular citizen complaints about the locally elected officials, in most election cycles the majority of incumbents have no competitors. Once in a while, there’s a dark horse upset, like Sutter upsetting incumbent Paul Walsh Jr. in the 2006 DA’s race or Chris Hendricks upsetting longtime Rep. Bob Koczera in 2018. But for the most part, the incumbents have few challengers.

That is the case even in 2022 when there are no fewer than eight candidates challenging four incumbents. Sheriff Hodgson, DA Quinn, and Reps. Straus and Markey all have contested races. Still, five other locally elected state lawmakers — state senators Mark Montigny and Mike Rodrigues; and state reps Tony Cabral, Paul Schmid and Chris Hendricks — have no opposition in the primary.

The difficulty for the challengers is to raise enough money, and work hard enough, to run credible campaigns against the well-financed operations of the well-known elected officials already in office.

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I can count four challengers this year who have raised enough money to be competitive if they know how to strategically use the available free media. They are Paul Heroux, Nick Bernier, George McNeil, Tom Quinn, Shannon McMahon, Cameron Costa and Rick Trapilo. I can only count one, Heroux, who has raised enough money that he could easily be competitive in a final election.

Is money everything?

No. Donald Trump, for example, did not spend much of his own money in his first presidential campaign. But Donald Trump was long a reality TV star with high name recognition throughout the country before he ever put his name on a ballot. Of the eight challengers running in the Tuesday South Coast primary election, none of them has either county-wide or district-wide name recognition, although perhaps Heroux, the incumbent mayor of Attleboro, could be said to have it in the small section of Bristol County around the city he currently leads.

So what are the issues that South Coast voters will be deciding on Tuesday?

Well, there is criminal justice reform in the sheriff and DA races. In 2018, none other than President Trump signed a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the number of inmates in federal prisons through the use of more effective recidivism programs. The First Step Act also included provisions to help police de-escalate confrontations with citizens and address opioid abuse and distribution problems in the prisons. Massachusetts’ own 2016 criminal justice reform act attempted the same. Some of its reforms remain controversial — such as the tightening of the bail regulations to benefit low-level and low-income detainees — but its measures have not even been a campaign issue in the DA race.

Sheriff candidates, from left, George McNeil, Nick Bernier and Paul Heroux.

In the sheriff’s race Democratic primary, Bernier, Heroux and McNeil have all emphasized reform and cited figures they say indicate there is a high recidivism problem in Bristol County under Sheriff Hodgson.

The winner of Tuesday’s sheriff race primary will face Thomas Hodgson in November. Credit: Bristol County Sheriff’s Department

But the race has also not been without sometimes bitter debate among the Democrats about who has the most experience to run a county jail system, and who would be the most successful candidate to go up against Hodgson.

Similarly, in the district attorney’s race, criminal justice reform has been a focus of challenger Shannon McMahon’s campaign. She’s cited the lack of veterans and mental health courts in the county, and charged that the recovery court is sleepy. She’s also made an issue of DA Quinn not signing a pledge not to extradict women who may have an abortion performed in Massachusetts.

Quinn, if not in response at least on his own behalf, has pointed out his office’s program that diverts low-level drug offenders to treatment, and the operation of an elder abuse unit, and missing persons program. But it is Quinn’s no-nonsense approach to keeping offenders behind bars through dangerousness hearings, and his office’s high-profile, successful prosecutions of Aaron Hernandez and Michelle Carter, that he is most well known for.

An affordable housing crisis that has sharply escalated in the region in the last half-decade has been the most commonly mentioned issue in the two competitive state rep districts.

With the region facing greatly increased housing costs, both Costa and Markey in the 9th District have advocated increasing government assistance for home ownership and zoning that would make it easier to build homes that a middle class buyer can afford. Similarly, both Straus and Trapilo in the 10th have expressed support for subsidies for housing — home ownership programs designed by the local nonprofit PACE in Straus’ case and Mayor Mitchell’s ARPA grants for mixed-income developments in Trapilo’s.

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Markey, a conservative Democrat, has faced implicit criticism from the left for the state’s underfunding of higher education while Straus, a moderate Democrat in leadership, has faced direct criticism from the right over his support of the gas tax. Those making the case are Cameron Costa from the left against Markey and Rick Trapilo from the right against Straus.

On Tuesday, the small percentage of voters who turn out in primary elections will determine who will serve in the majority of these races. Only the sheriff’s race is in any level of doubt in the final election.

And that no doubt will be the race to watch come the final election on Nov. 8.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.