In the end, Linda Morad and Naomi Carney held on.
In what may become known in the city as “The Great Incumbents Win Again Election,” the two veteran at-large councilors beat back the challengers and will return for a respective 19th and 13th year on the council.
In some form of poetic justice, Morad and Carney exactly tied each other in their vote totals. Their numbers in the individual precincts did not equally align with each other, but they both totaled 3,481 votes apiece or 10.97% of the at-large votes. Morad did better in her Ward 1 home base and Carney did better in her base in Ward 5.
Meanwhile, the city’s longest-serving at-large councilor, Brian Gomes, with an astounding 32 years under his belt on the council, will return for a 33rd year on the city’s legislative body, but his following in the city remains healthier than that of either Morad or Carney. Although it’s fair to say that all three longtime at-large councilors were less popular this year than more recently elected councilors Ian Abreu (eight years ago) and Shane Burgo (two years ago) who finished first and second in the at-large race.
Councilor Gomes, although he voted for a muscular boost to the salaries of certain city employees pushed by Morad and Carney, was not as identified with it as the other two.
In the 24 years I’ve covered New Bedford politics, this was the biggest, though not most successful, effort to unseat at-large councilors I’ve seen. In all those years, only three of 60 incumbent at-large councilors have been ousted.
In 1999, freshman Councilor Steve Sharek was defeated when veteran Councilor David Alves returned to the at-large race after an unsuccessful 1997 run for mayor.
In 2005, then-freshman Councilor Naomi Carney was defeated when well-known neighborhood activist Debora Coelho finished third in the at-large race in her first bid for public office. In 2013, two-decade incumbent John Saunders was defeated in the wake of his pushing through a 44% council pay raise and then telling the media that voters could throw him out if they didn’t like it. They did.
Saunders is a member of a group of political insiders often referred to as “The Machine,” which has influenced and often dominated South Coast politics for decades. He won a county commissioner seat the very next year after his council defeat and has been on the commission ever since.
So why did the effort to oust the long-term councilors fall short?
Well, the councilors were lucky when an effort to put a charter change on the ballot that would enact term-limits for councilors failed to launch. It was an earnest effort led by Ward 5 resident Catherine Adamowicz. Their signature drive failed amid a dispute between Election Commision Chair Manny DeBrito and the organizers over how many signatures were necessary. Then the incumbent councilors, of course, refused to put the question on the ballot themselves.
By the time of the final election, Morad and Carney, who in the preliminary election had finished just 61 and 37 votes ahead of challenger Scott Lima in the preliminary, were able to whip their longtime political operations into a fuller advertising and organizational mode. By Tuesday’s final election, the two embattled incumbents had boosted their lead over Lima, the incumbent Ward 5 councilor, to 267 votes, or .84% of the vote.
Devin Byrnes, the owner of Destination Soups in the downtown and a first-time political candidate, had finished within 300 votes of Morad and Carney in the Oct. 3 preliminary election but had dropped to 830 votes, or 2.62% percent behind in the final.
Morad and Carney, with much better name recognition to begin with, widened the gap between them and their challengers, and Morad in particular spent heavily. The tied fourth- and fifth-place finishers had campaign signs that were often in the same spots across the city, often in small commercial lots.
In the month of October, Morad spent $1,973.26 on mailing materials and $3,600 on postage. Carney, traditionally a less prolific fundraiser than Morad, spent $770.31 on signs that month.
Byrnes, for a newcomer, was successful enough in his fundraising to spend $1,500 for a campaign consultant to do mailings and texts, and $1,334.46 for political signs and rack cards for the same time period. By contrast, Lima only spent $424.94 on campaign postcards and $700 on postage.
None of this is counting the radio advertising, which all four engaged in to a greater or lesser extent, but not all of which appears to be listed on the state’s Office of Campaign and Political finance reports yet.
In the wake of their efforts falling short, the challengers had different reactions. Lima said he had run for the office that he wanted and had no regrets. He repeated that his focus is on the waterfront.
It’s no secret that Mayor Jon Mitchell helped Lima — apparently in an effort to oust either Carney or Morad, who have both been frequent opponents of his agendas. I would not be surprised to see Lima go to work for the city in some sort of waterfront position. He is already a member of the board of directors of the Ocean Cluster, an economic development organization focused on sustainable ocean development.
Byrnes, who was entering his first foray into elective politics, was disappointed but philosophical. No doubt, he learned a lot about New Bedford’s system of government and the way politics works in the city, particularly in at-large races.
The New Bedford at-large councilors are like the city’s Senate. They are elected citywide and unlike the ward councilors or mayor, they don’t have to win a one-on-one race. All they have to do to win a seat is finish in one of the top five positions in a 10-person race.
There are good reasons for that. By having elected officials who do not have to win the most votes in a one-on-one race, less popular individuals who may have a lot to contribute can win a seat on the council. They can either bring minority views or special group views to the table. They can also bring valuable experience that may be less popular with the public at large.
The at-large councilors serve as a brake on a government that merely consists of what’s most popular.
The problem, however, as we saw this past year, is that the at-large councilors can sometimes become so out-of-touch that they veer into being reflexively resistant to whoever is mayor, even arrogant.
If Catherine Adamowicz, or other groups that are talking about charter reform, really want to do something that might help the city, they might ask for a home-rule petition to allow the city to opt out of the state requirement that all incumbents are listed first on the ballot, and in alphabetical order.
When confronted by 10 names on a ballot, the track record of voters these last 24 years shows that many of them simply start at the beginning and check off names of people they like. Sometimes they are out of choices on the at-large ballot (where you can only vote for up to five) by the time they get to the sixth name on the ballot.
That’s why only three of 60 candidates over the last 24 years have been able to oust an incumbent.
But it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And being a persistent candidate sometimes, though not always, helps.
Brian Gomes ran six times before he was first elected and now he’s been elected 16 times. Ian Abreu topped the at-large ballot by a wide margin Tuesday and may be a strong candidate for state rep or mayor some day. He ran three times before he was elected
Even Leo Choquette, who was elected for the first time up in Ward 1 Tuesday, was on his fourth try for office this year. He ran for at-large in 2013 and 2019 and then for the Ward 1 seat in 2021 and 2023. He may have figured out that it’s easier to break into a ward seat than the at-large field.
Choquette seemed to have worked harder than anyone this year. He assertively worked the media. And it finally paid off.
It’s not easy defeating the advantages of incumbent office holders. But it can be done.
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