The race for the 10th Bristol District seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives is unusually crowded.
Democratic Rep. Bill Straus has held the seat for almost 30 years. A solar eclipse is more common for Straus than a Democratic primary opponent — businessman Rick Trapilo of Fairhaven will be the second-ever Democrat to challenge Straus’s incumbency when they face off in the primary on Sept. 6.
Even rarer, there are not one but two candidates running for the GOP nomination. The last time that happened was 2004. Plymouth County Deputy Sheriff Robert Scott McConnell of Fairhaven and chiropractor Dr. Jeffrey Swift of Mattapoisett will be on the Republican ballot.
This is the first time since 1956 that both the Democratic and Republican primaries in this district have been contested at the same time.
The 10th Bristol district covers Fairhaven, Mattapoisett, Marion, and Rochester. It also used to cover some of New Bedford’s Near North End, but after 2021 redistricting it now includes a sliver of New Bedford north of Brooklawn Park and part of Acushnet.
Straus said he wants a 16th term so he can continue working on projects he has supported as chair of the Transportation Committee. In the latest transportation funding bill, he helped to allocate $100 million to replace the Route 6 bridge. And he recently helped authorize $900,000 to prepare local first responders for train-related emergencies that could happen after South Coast Rail launches in late 2023.
“I have the experience and the position within the Legislature to quickly turn something around in just a few months and get them the funding,” he said.
He also touted accomplishments like the completion of the Fairhaven-Mattapoisett bike path and creation of a regional water authority that protects local drinking water resources.
Straus said he’s proud to be part of the South Coast community, but his challengers say he has lost touch with his constituents. As Trapilo gathered signatures to join the primary race, he said he found few people who knew Straus’s name.
“Bill, I kind of felt like, was an absentee, ghost leadership,” said Trapilo, his Democratic opponent.
Trapilo is a self-described “conservative, blue-collar Democrat” and he said he takes pride in his business experience. He worked as an executive in the manufacturing industry for decades, then opened Pub 6T5 on Ashley Boulevard in New Bedford. He sold the bar after a few years of operation to pursue commercial real estate.
“I’m a gentleman who’s managed manufacturing facilities across the U.S. and in the Far East,” he said. “I know how to get the job done.”
The candidate wants to make New Bedford friendlier to businesses by offering tax incentives, which he hopes will attract real estate developers to increase the affordable housing supply and other companies that will bring in more jobs.
Trapilo and Straus both support increasing spending on education and helping the state transition to clean energy. They also both say they want tax relief for working-class families to help them cope with inflation. But they clashed on the issue of whether to lift the state gas tax.
Straus opposed the tax cut because he believed the oil and gas companies would pocket it instead of letting prices drop at the pump.
“To give tax cuts to those who are the least deserving hurts our inflation fight,” Straus said.
He also was concerned about revenue for road and bridge repairs, which the gas tax is supposed to fund. But Trapilo took issue with Straus’s financial apprehensions.
“How shameful,” Trapilo said. “How insensitive of a comment, to say that when political leadership, in my humble opinion, should always care about the most needy in our society.”
Straus has questioned Trapilo’s commitment to the Democratic party, calling his opponent’s stance on the gas tax a “Republican talking point.” Fairhaven voter registration records show Trapilo was registered as a Republican in 1996 before he registered as a Democrat in 2000.
“I don’t ever remember being a Republican,” Trapilo said when asked about his registration.
Upon reviewing his voter record, he later clarified that he voted for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996, which he believes may have affected his registration.
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“I think the larger point is that I have been a Democrat for the last 22 years,” Trapilo wrote in an email.
There is a major funding disparity between the two Democratic candidates. Even after contributing $10,000 of his own money and raising thousands more — most of which he has already burned through — Trapilo still trails Straus, who has more than $88,000 in cash to spend, according to the latest filings.
McConnell, who is running for the Republican nomination, has just $417 in his campaign account. He knows he doesn’t have the resources, connections, or education the other candidates have.
“It is an insurmountable goal in some ways, or something that on the surface of it looks like foolishness,” he said. “But I’m not going to back down from something that I believe in and have passion for.”
He said he hadn’t even dreamed of running for the seat until he called the Massachusetts Republican Party headquarters asking why they weren’t sending candidates to run against Straus. That’s when the party leadership told him to put his own name on the ballot.
There happens to be another Republican running this year, but the rationale and status of Swift’s candidacy are mysteries. Campaign filings show that he planned to run since at least April and has raised $3,017. But with less than a month until the primary, Swift hasn’t made a public announcement and did not make time for an interview with The Light, despite multiple requests.
McConnell’s campaign is rooted in his background as a Plymouth County deputy sheriff. At 65, he is technically retired from his decades-long career in law enforcement, but he still works on the sheriff’s homeland security and ICE teams. Much of his work involves transporting undocumented immigrants.
People in McConnell’s life, including childhood friends, have called him a xenophobe and bigot for being part of this country’s immigration enforcement machinery. But McConnell objects to that characterization, telling stories of times when he connected with immigrants by speaking their language or using his own money to buy them a bus ticket.
“I don’t think you would find anybody more caring and compassionate to human suffering and having a desire to help other people than me,” he said.
By pursuing the Republican nomination, McConnell is pushing back against what he sees as a “one party political system” in Massachusetts, where 71% of State House candidates ran uncontested in 2019, according to the Associated Press.
“There needs to be some political friction,” he said. “Not fighting, just friction.”
Short on cash, McConnell knows that all he can afford to do is campaign door-to-door — you can’t buy votes anyway, he said. Strategizing over a hand-annotated map, he isn’t sure he’ll meet his goal of connecting with every single voter in the district.
“But they’ll at least know about me, and of me, and know who’s representing them, whether it’s me or somebody else,” he said. “And that’s very important in the basis of my campaign.”
Email Grace Ferguson at email@example.com.