The often stormy 25-year administration of Republican Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, who faced accusations of abusing people in custody, overstepping the bounds of his authority and political grandstanding on illegal immigration, ended quietly early Wednesday morning as he conceded his fifth race to the Democratic challenger, Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux. 

In a room at White’s of Westport, the energy of some 150 supporters ebbed steadily as the night wore on and vote totals mounted against the state’s longest-serving sheriff.  Hodgson, ever-defiant when facing criticism of his agency, this time gently acknowledged bad news: he would not have the votes to win. 

Shortly after 1 a.m., he made a brief statement to reporters who were standing immediately around him, and through them congratulated Heroux, who pledged during the campaign to run a “modern jail” system featuring meticulous monitoring of inmate rehabilitation programs. From a few steps away there was no sign that a generation-long era in Bristol County politics had come to an end. 

Soon Jo-Anne Mello Hodgson was barring any further media contact with her husband, shooing reporters out. 

The room at the popular banquet spot, where Hodgson had held his upbeat annual cocktail reception three weeks before, had quickly turned from “a public space to a private space,” said campaign volunteer Jessica Machado. Hodgson, 68 years old, moved through the room hugging one supporter after another. The giant television that had been carrying election coverage all night went dark. Some Hodgson supporters were in tears. 

Earlier in the night, Hodgson made clear that if the vote did not go his way, he would accept the result. In retrospect it seemed he could see where things were heading. 

Hodgson said he would understand the outcome as “It’s what the people want,” emphasizing that he would not challenge it. “The last thing we want to do, we’ve seen enough people question our democracy,” he said. 

As vote returns came in, before Hodgson conceded, the 46-year-old Heroux re-stated a campaign theme, saying “it seems that people were ready for change.”

A former state representative who worked for four years in administrative positions in prison systems in Massachusetts and in Philadelphia, Heroux said in a phone interview from his Election Night post in Somerset that he could see it was likely he was building an insurmountable lead, but it was too soon to say so publicly. 

Heroux, who is in the middle of his third two-year term as mayor of Attleboro, will leave the job to assume the sheriff’s position, and will be succeeded by Municipal Council President James Dilisio, who will serve as acting mayor.

Attleboro Mayor and candidate for Bristol County sheriff Paul Heroux speaks to retired police chief George McNeil, who ran against Heroux in the primary. Credit: Hugh Fanning / The New Bedford Light

What Heroux saw on Tuesday night were vote totals that were incomplete, but enough to make it difficult for Hodgson to overcome without a very strong showing in Taunton, which did not report its results until quite late. The preliminary figure released by the city showed that Hodgson had won by 568 votes, 8,341 to 7,773. Anything less than about 2,500 would not have been enough, Machado said.

When Hodgson finally saw a Taunton vote figure, he decided to concede the race, his fifth for a six-year-term. 

Preliminary results showed the sheriff — who won comfortably in three-candidate races in 1998 and 2010 and swamped his challenger in a head-to-head race in 2004 — doing well in many areas where has shown strength in the past: Berkley, Seekonk, Raynham, Norton, Swansea, and Dighton. Hodgson ran unopposed in 2016. 

In some cases the margins were smaller, say, than they were in 2010, but a big difference was the turnabout in Attleboro.

In 2010, Hodgson won the city in the northwest edge of the county with 57 percent. This time, facing a popular Attleboro mayor, Hodgson lost the city with 47 percent to Heroux’s 53. 

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson with supporters at White’s of Westport on Election night, Nov. 8. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

Hodgson had won New Bedford only once in four races, in 2004, when he won all 20 communities in Bristol County to beat then-Fall River City Council member Leo O. Pelletier with 58% of the vote. In 1998 and in 2010 Hodgson lost New Bedford by margins of 4% of the vote and 15% respectively. This time, he lost it 12,508 to 7,922, or 22% of total votes cast in that contest.

In 2010, Hodgson won Fall River with 44% of the vote in a three-candidate field. This time, according to the Fall River Herald News, with nearly 80% of the vote counted, a preliminary figure shows he did better than before, 49.5%, but still short of Heroux’s 50.4%.

In Hodgson’s home town of Dartmouth, which also is home to a number of core Heroux supporters in the group Bristol County for Correctional Justice, Heroux won with 52% of the vote, and in Fairhaven with 54%. 

What happened?

Comments from a few voters at the polls on Tuesday show Hodgson’s supporters continuing to applaud his signature approach, established soon after he assumed the job in the summer of 1997, as he made clear that under his watch there would be no softening of the hard — he would likely say instructive — edge of imprisonment.

“I like that he’s tough,” said Cheryl Benevides of New Bedford, after she cast her vote at the Buttonwood Warming House. “Jail is not a playground, it’s not there for [inmates’] entertainment. They’re there because they did a crime and they should pay for it.”

After casting his ballot for Hodgson in Fall River, Henry Pleiss said he’s persuaded by his friends and relatives in law enforcement who all support Hodgson. Heroux, he said, seemed too soft.

“I don’t know that he’ll be tough enough,” Pleiss said. “You’re dealing with lawbreakers. They’re not choir boys.”

At the same time, comments from Heroux voters, some of whom said they had voted for Hodgson in the past, suggested that Heroux’s simple message of “It’s Time for Change” was finding a receptive audience. The remarks also raise a question about whether Hodgson’s outspoken support for former President Donald Trump — not a factor in any of Hodgson’s previous contested races — may have worked against him. 

“He’s just kind of gone over the line for me a little bit with the Trump rhetoric,” said Jonathan Grzyb of Attleboro, after voting at the Elks Lodge, adding that he had voted for Hodgson in the past. He said that the rhetoric, plus his appreciation for the job Heroux had done as mayor, contributed to his choice. 

“It’s good for a change,” said Diane Kearns, after voting at the James L. Mulcahy Elementary School in Taunton. “I think we need someone who has local interest … I think [Hodgson] was better when he first started off. I think he’s playing a political game.”

She said she had voted for Hodgson in the past, but became disenchanted with his pursuits, such as immigration enforcement and border security, that did not seem to have much to do with Bristol County. 

After voting for Heroux at the Old Westport High School, Dennis Orsi decried all the vehicles Hodgson seemed to have accumulated for the sheriff’s office over the years, often displayed at the annual Fourth of July Parade, and wondered why a jailer would need such an armada.

Hodgson had a gift for the public performance aspect of the position, including making headlines right off the bat. He sustained that flair through much of his time in office, but in different ways.

At first it was the displays of toughening practice at the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford and the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, as he removed televisions from the cells and exercise weights from the gym. He said it was to discourage inmates from leisurely pursuits when they could be spending time working on rehabilitative programs. 

He made news saying that he wanted his institutions to be places to which no inmate would want to return, although it was never clear which prison in the world would be such a place. He made news by charging inmates for haircuts, room and board, medical visits and high-school equivalency programs. He said he was teaching the values of the real world, but a court put a stop to the practice. 

Sign-holders Mark Duprey, 51, left, and Claude Cobert, 64, politely ignored each other and offered many a friendly wave to passers-by. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

He made news sending his deputies to patrol local streets as violence escalated years ago, but backed off the practice when some officials, including the former mayor of New Bedford, decried the encroachment on city authority. The story of Hodgson’s inmate work gangs out in the community shackled together at the ankles was national news. 

His offer to send inmates to build the Wall that former President Trump was promising to build on the southwest border was national and international news. He made news rallying sheriffs across the country to protect the border. He opened the first dedicated immigration detention center in Massachusetts in North Dartmouth in 2007, only to have the federal government shut down the operation 14 years later after Hodgson’s officers were found in a Massachusetts attorney general’s report to have used excessive force and disregarded the health of detainees in responding to a melee there in 2020.

His opponent, the new sheriff in town, promises a very different approach. Heroux, who holds master’s degrees in public administration, international relations and criminology, has said he will focus on efforts to prepare inmates for lives as law-abiding citizens when they leave. 

Hodgson has argued that Heroux only talks about doing what the agency is already doing. Heroux has promised to hold the department’s work up to a kind of public scrutiny that has not been practiced before. 

Accomplished in martial arts, Heroux makes a bookish presentation, as compared with Sheriff Hodgson’s disciplinarian profile. Heroux has a reputation for putting in long hours reading, trying to understand how things work. 

And also long hours campaigning, which cannot be discounted as a factor in the race, especially given Hodgson’s financial advantage at the end of September. At that time, Heroux’s campaign had about $45,000 cash on hand, a bit more than a fifth of Hodgson’s total at the time.

People around Attleboro talk about seeing Heroux day after day during the primary and general election campaigns knocking on doors, often making the rounds on his bicycle. In October, when it seemed he was an underdog against a longstanding, well-known incumbent, Laura Dolan, a Heroux ally on the Attleboro Municipal Council, said it would be a mistake to discount his work ethic. 

“Nobody will outwork him,” Dolan said. “If anybody’s going to beat [Hodgson], it’ll be Paul.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 9, 2022, to include additional details, comments and vote totals, and updated on Nov. 12, 2022, to clarify Sheriff-elect Paul Heroux’s academic credentials.

Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at ahirsch@newbedfordlight.org.

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