Perhaps the most politically charged race in Bristol County this election season will unfold when incumbent Republican Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, a Trump ally and the longest-serving sheriff in Massachusetts, defends his seat against a Democratic challenger for the first time since 2010.
But before that showdown, voters will need to choose which of three Democrats will become Hodgson’s head-to-head opponent. That decision will come in the Sept. 6 primary election, which arrives the day after Labor Day.
The Democratic candidates come with varying levels of experience in law enforcement, management, political campaigning and criminal courts. Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux has worked in corrections management; Fall River attorney and former prosecutor Nick Bernier has run political campaigns; and retired Somerset Police Chief George McNeil served for more than three years as president of the Bristol County Chiefs of Police Association.
Hodgson has never faced a primary opponent in his 25-year tenure, and he has no Republican challenger this year either. But all three Democrats have cited the incumbent sheriff and his policies as their primary motivation for running.
Heroux, 45, said “I was compelled to get into this race,” largely because of Sheriff Hodgson, who he says “runs his mouth on immigration.” Heroux has served as a state representative, elected to three terms in Bristol’s Second 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 has promised constituents in Attleboro that he would step down after a third term as mayor, though there aren’t official limits. If elected sheriff, Heroux would not complete his third term. An active social media user, Heroux posts a summary of his mayoral work each day to his public Facebook, a habit that extends back to his time as a state representative. He also shares updates on his current election campaign. According to the most recent filings with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), Heroux has reached $100,000 in public contributions. This figure leads among candidates in the Democratic primary, but is about half of the receipts Hodgson has totaled.
Heroux grew up in Attleboro, where his parents operated a drug store. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in psychology and neuroscience, and has also received master’s degrees in international relations and public administration, in addition to one in criminology.
Nick Bernier, 37, a Fall River attorney, touts many endorsements from individual legislators and public officials. He has spent much of his political life working in opposition to Hodgson, having previously been involved in three campaigns against the sheriff, but now seeks a first electoral win for himself. Bernier’s first involvement in a campaign against Hodgson came at 18 years old, when he worked on Fall River City Councilor Leo Pelletier’s 2004 campaign.
“I disagree vehemently with his policies,” Bernier said about Hodgson, citing drugs as the most pressing issue in Bristol County corrections. Inmates, he said, go “in with a drug problem [and] they come back with a drug problem. Most likely, they had a drug problem throughout their time in jail.” As a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s office, Bernier says he saw the same people re-offend, sometimes with only a few weeks between their release and re-entry.
Bernier points to a lack of rehabilitative programs to treat drug addiction and mental health, and has said these programs can benefit corrections officers, as well as inmates.
In 2012, he ran for governor’s council, but lost in a narrow run-off. He has managed successful campaigns, including Michael Rodrigues’ bid for state Senate and Joseph Ferreira’s run for Governor’s Council.
In 2021, Bernier testified against disgraced former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia, whose software company SnoOwl defrauded investors. “I was his business partner until the numbers didn’t add up,” he told The Light. Bernier ended up testifying for more than five hours against his former employer, pointing out that he waived his immunity to do so, “because I know I did nothing wrong.”
Raised in Swansea, Bernier said he became the youngest Eagle Scout in regional history at 13 years and five months. He attended Boston College before earning a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis. He is now a partner in the law practice that he founded, having made a name for himself after leaving the Bristol County DA’s office by winning “a big case exempting solar equipment from taxation in Massachusetts,” he said.
Bernier has raised more than $37,000, but most recent OCPF filings show he has spent more than $31,000 of that coffer.
George McNeil, 58, was the final candidate to enter the race, setting the field when he announced his run in March — five months after Bernier and two months after Heroux. He retired as police chief of Somerset in 2021, but still helps to accredit police departments across the state as one of six officials in the accreditation commission. Both as police chief and an accreditation official, McNeil says his experience gives him the management savvy to overhaul the sheriff’s department, which he thinks is “too top heavy.” He promises to clean up a “staff that are getting paid a lot of money [but] don’t have much to do.”
His main focus, however, is on the treatment of inmates.
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“I don’t think there’s enough effort to rehabilitate those that can be rehabilitated,” he said. “Whether that’s through addiction or through mental health counseling or through vocations … people leaving there are not improving on themselves at all.”
McNeil makes a distinction between the roles of the sheriff’s department and law enforcement, where he spent his 37-year career. He says the sheriff’s job is about care and custody, but he doesn’t agree with how it’s currently being done. Citing allegations of mistreatment that were filed in lawsuits against the current sheriff, McNeil said “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, it’s just simply wrong. You don’t treat human beings that way.”
McNeil graduated first in his class from the Foxboro police academy. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and a master’s degree in criminal justice at Anna Maria College. For 11 years he taught as an adjunct professor at Bridgewater State University in classes about policing, community and society and corrections. At most recent filings, McNeil had raised just below $20,000 in total, but has spent nearly all of it, including $15,000 on billboards.
Charges of negative campaigning
The Democratic race has recently taken a more adversarial tone, with two candidates accusing a third of engaging in negative political campaigning.
On Friday, Bernier and McNeil released a joint statement accusing Heroux of not running “a clean campaign.” They said the release of a negative mailer signified a broken promise from Heroux, before alleging that Heroux has a history of broken promises that serve his own ambition.
In response, Heroux told The Light that he had an initial agreement with Bernier to not “say or do anything to each other in the primary that would hurt each other in the general election.” Heroux says he hasn’t broken that promise, because there were no negative characterizations. The mailer in question includes a chart with comparisons in “Campaigns Won”; “Number of Donations”; and “Employees Managed,” among other categories.
Heroux also says that he has never misled voters, citing multiple public acknowledgements that he would run for another office before his term as mayor concludes.
Beyond the primary, the race to oversee a department of corrections will be the first referendum on Hodgson since a high-profile 2020 investigation that led to the closure of Bristol County’s federal immigration detention facility. Hodgson has characterized the investigation and 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’s name, however, is still one of the most recognizable that voters will encounter. In fact, more voters in Bristol County can identify their sheriff than anywhere else in Massachusetts (and by a wide margin).
Though Sheriff Hodgson’s record may be in focus for the challengers, there are several issues in Bristol County that The New Bedford Light asked each Democratic candidate about in advance of the Sept. 6 primary. In a series of candidate profiles, each provides answers on several key policy questions.
Chief among these is what can be done about the high rate of suicides reported in Bristol County’s detention facilities. That problem has been linked to the jails themselves, including the oldest lock-up in the country on New Bedford’s Ash Street.
“I have no intention of shutting down the Ash Street facility,” Hodgson told The Light, calling it “one of the cleanest, quietest, safest jails in the United States.”
And now that ICE has shuttered the federal immigration detention center, candidates will explain their plans for that space.
On Thursday evening, the Democratic candidates will join The Light’s columnist Jack Spillane for a live discussion on The Chat.
Find information on voter registration, mail-in voting, polling hours and other issues related to both the primary election and the Nov. 8 general election on The Light’s Election 2022 page.
Email Colin Hogan at email@example.com.