It’s taken a while, but over the last week or so the political differences between the two Ward 3 city councilor candidates are finally coming into focus.

With the Feb. 28 election less than a week away, that’s a good thing for the voters.

The special election to replace Hugh Dunn necessitated an abbreviated preliminary election season that only began the first week of December. And it looked for a while like the only thing we were going to be able to tell you about Shawn Oliver and Carmen Amaral was that they were both in favor of doing a good job on constituent services. 

Oh yeah, and improving the City Council’s communication with the residents of the ward.

In an environment in which the public clearly seemed to be saying the recently resigned Councilor Dunn had fallen down on the constituent service part of his job, that’s all very nice. But what about the actual views of these folks who want to replace him? After all, being in favor of good constituent services and improved communication with the public is like saying you’re in favor of mom, apple pie and the New Bedford High Whalers. We’re all in favor of that, but the question is this: Who has the ability to really deliver, and what do they plan on delivering?


What about some of the important issues that really divide the city? You know, those issues that are known to prevent New Bedford from making progress.

For instance, does New Bedford have a systemic problem with police profiling minority youth and interactions with the public that can quickly escalate, like those that led to the death of 15-year-old Malcolm Gracia a decade ago? A Boston study and at least one city councilor, Shane Burgo, has said it’s an issue we need to take seriously. Others say it’s just a matter of an occasional bad police officer.

And how about those admissions policies at Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech that are said to skew against English learners and disabled kids? Are those policies really necessary and equitable to keep the school successful or are they just a way of diverting middle-class kids away from the comprehensive high school? And the way that public charter schools operate in the city, do they redirect funding away from the public district schools by picking off the easiest to educate students? Or are they just another type of public school that serves a valuable alternative when district schools have failed? Is the charter school question an issue about fairness to the teachers or opportunity for students or both? 

Here’s something I’d like to know more about: Has the City Council and state legislative delegation been overly generous when it comes to municipal employee pensions, causing New Bedford property taxes to grow rapidly over the last several decades? And why won’t the City Council do something about the prohibitively expensive cost of the health-care plans for city employees and retirees? Can the council actually do something about that, or is the more pressing problem that New Bedford no longer has an adequate commercial and industrial tax base?

After my Chat with Oliver and Amaral at The New Bedford Light last week, I wasn’t sure where either candidate stood on these issues. 

I’d also like to know if Mr. Oliver and Ms. Amaral think the State Pier should be developed for more tourism and commercial uses or remain primarily a shipping and fishing facility? The mayor and council and the legislative delegation have certainly been divided over that.

And should the city continue to borrow for low-cost state loans to clean up the water and sewer systems that are polluting Buzzards Bay? Or are property taxes so high it’s worth risking a lawsuit from the EPA? And how can the city more quickly build an industrial and commercial tax base when it is so short of developable land?

Almost three months into the campaign, I’m not sure what either of them would do on these issues. 

The truth is that Carmen Amaral and Shawn Oliver don’t have magic solutions to any of these questions. And neither do any of the incumbent elected officials for that matter.

And to a certain extent, we don’t know a whole lot about the answers to any of these questions because the two Ward 3 finalists may be new to politics but they’ve learned the game very quickly. They’ve both taken cautious, middle-of-the-road positions on nearly everything. 

Particularly disappointing were Amaral and Oliver’s answers on the important question of reforming the voc-tech admissions process, where I thought they both sounded like long-term city politicians.

Amaral insisted she supports the mayor’s nominee to the voc-tech School Committee in terms of her qualifications, but she then went off about voc-tech concerns about the mayor’s nomination process not being transparent — even suggesting there should be an election for what is clearly, by law, the mayor’s nomination. Amaral also may not have understood the proposed voc-tech lottery, when she said that under one model more boys were admitted than girls. That’s not the model those suing the city are suggesting, which would place all 8th grade students into the same lottery.

Ward 3 City Council candidate Carmen Amaral on the campaign trail through a New Bedford housing development. Credit: Facebook

Oliver also seemed tentative and wanting to have it both ways on the voc-tech question, acknowledging a lottery would eliminate the stress of the application process and might admit more kids, but then saying he’s willing to “try” it, even if it was only short term. “As of now, I’d be a supporter.” What? Once we change this voc-tech admissions system, we’re going to have to give it a good long try to see if it works!

Here’s what I thought when I heard them: We have two candidates here who are under immense pressure from the voc-tech establishment to avoid reforming this school system. Disappointing to me for folks new to politics in the city to be so slippery.

On other questions, the Ward 3 finalists were clearer, but there often was not much difference between them.

In fact, with the exception of Amaral, a former teacher and school administrator, saying she opposes charter schools and Oliver, a state prison corrections officer, saying he is not sure the downtown is the right place for a suboxone clinic, there have been few differences that have come to light during the campaign.

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So how are voters to make up their minds?

I think it’s in the endorsements that the candidates have won where you really get the best picture of who these folks are, and what their positions on the council are likely to be.

For Amaral, she’s won the endorsement of newly elected Sheriff Paul Heroux. Since Heroux ran as a reformer, emphasizing the need to reduce recidivism — against longtime law-and-order former sheriff, Tom Hodgson — that tells you a lot. Also, thanks to New Bedford Light reporter Arthur Hirsch’s recent interview with Oliver, we know that the latter voted for Hodgson. Oliver said he supports Hodgson’s law-and-order approach, and felt he was most likely to have the backs of corrections officers like himself.

Oliver also has the endorsement of MCOFU, the Massachusetts Corrections Officer Federated Union; the New Bedford Police Union; and AFSCME, the union that represents the city’s rank-and-file laborers and clerical workers. That’s a lot of support from a police union that often opposed reform, and municipal workers are folks who are not shy about advocating for good contracts.

Oliver seems likely to prioritize their views of public safety and union contracts. It sounds very much like he’s a Reagan Democrat, tough-on-crime guy. Not that he doesn’t have concerns about police brutality as he’s talked about his training in de-escalation as a corrections officer

Ward 3 City Council candidate Shawn Oliver plants a sign on a lawn during one of neighborhood campaign trips. Credit: Facebook

Amaral, for her part, has won the endorsements of some big private-sector labor unions (including the Greater SE Mass State Labor Council AFL-CIO and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades). But in addition to Heroux’s nod, she has two other progressive credentials under her wing, the Coalition for Social Justice and the Democratic City Committee. Perhaps most revealing, she has won the endorsement of one of the unions affiliated with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and volunteered with Save Our Schools, an anti-charter school group. She can be expected to be a supporter of teachers, teachers’ unions and their interests. Not that that precludes support of good public education, and Amaral has dedicated her career to the purpose. Still, the charter school opposition sounds reflexive.

Amaral sounds very much like an Elizabeth Warren Democrat.

Closer to home, two of the moderate-to-conservative challengers in the Ward 3 preliminary race — Kathy Dehner and Bob Cabral — and Beth Fauteux, a former Ward 3 candidate, have endorsed Oliver. Two of the more progressive-leaning incumbent councilors — Shane Burgo and Scott Lima — have endorsed Amaral. As has state Rep. Chris Hendricks, a left-leaning legislator who represents the multifamily neighborhoods of the ward.

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Conservative WBSM radio host Phil Paleologos, a Ward 3 resident, endorsed fellow Republican Jacob Ventura in the preliminary, but now has an Oliver sign up in his yard. 

Endorsements, they say, don’t win elections, good candidates do. That’s certainly true. But the endorsements in this race, as much as anything, tell you about who some of the prominent people in Greater New Bedford think these candidates are, and what their values are.

This is an important election. The City Council has been divided by one-vote margins a number of times in the past year, with the conservative and moderate and progressive councilors closely balanced.

There’s one more factor that is going to play a big role in Tuesday’s race.

Both in the preliminary race and the final, Shawn Oliver has far and away had the most campaign signs. Those signs are mostly on the front lawns of the single-family homes in Precincts D, E, and F, the middle-class parts of the ward. 

Unfortunately, the truth is that middle-class precincts in New Bedford — and most other places in this country — vote in far higher percentages in local elections than the low-income precincts do. Even though the actual population in Ward 3 is split about evenly between the middle-class neighborhoods and the lower-income ones, it is the single-family precincts that will decide this race.

Oliver works the third shift as a corrections officer and has pounded the pavement knocking on doors during the daylight hours. He seems to have had more time to make his case to the voters than any of the seven other candidates who began this race. 

For her part, Amaral works full time during the day, but her team has also worked hard pounding on doors. And she has some signs out too, but it certainly seems like she does not have the daytime hours to devote to campaigning that Oliver does. 

Amaral points out that she is a well-organized person and has always worked as an advocate since her Azorean immigrant parents first came to America. Many of the incumbent city councilors also have day jobs, she says.

Campaign signs are certainly not the only indication of who will vote. I can remember a mayoral campaign 12 years ago when Linda Morad campaign signs filled one end of the city to another and Jon Mitchell nevertheless walked away with the victory.

But the signs do say something. We’re going to find exactly what they say, and don’t say, next Tuesday. And we’re going to find out who’s paying attention to a campaign where only 6.5% of voters turned out in the preliminary election. And which candidate is liked more by the small portion of voters in New Bedford who decide elections.

Email Jack Spillane at

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  1. I live in Ward 3. Endorsements mean nothing to me. I want to know what they’ll do in my Ward. The former Councilor did nothing. Henry Bousquet was on top of everything. I’ve read their pamphlets and listened to them. Neither really give an exact answer on anything. I’ve made my choice who I think will be the better candidate. Only time will tell.

  2. This is one reason a city manager is needed: To analyze and propose the tough-love policies that electeds dare not touch due to their public employee endorsements. If staff salaries were raised, there should be a 50/50 on health care. The pension burden is a problem for many municipalities. It is one reason bankruptcy/receivership has advantages: It mullifies all contracts (I’m told). But first, an experienced city manager should be put in place. A past mayor’s chief of staff said council would never go for that due to control issues. I’d say the same was true of the mayor at the time. The recent salary hikes should have been spent on this position. Thanks for astute observations, Jack.

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