In the end, it was the people of the city of New Bedford who sent Sheriff Tom Hodgson packing.
It was not the progressive activists who have long hated him and who don’t credit positively the way he has long bonded with many in this working-class town.
It was not the thousands of often despairing inmates and detainees who have suffered, and in some cases quite cruelly, under Sheriff Hodgson’s iron-fisted jailing methods.
It was not even Paul Heroux, this unusually hard-working and policy-driven politician — a guy who pronounces his name like “hero” — who has now taken down three incumbents in his first three tries at elective office.
No, what finally did in Tom Hodgson was the decent, hard-working people of the city of New Bedford, Bristol County’s largest working-class community and the place that undoubtedly has sent the largest number of inmates and correctional officers to tangle with the county’s chief jailer these last 2½ decades.
For 25 years, these folks had read and heard first-hand the stories about chain gangs and inmate uprisings in the bleak circumstances of the Dartmouth lockup the next town over. They had watched as one suicide after another happened in the antique cell blocks at the old Ash Street building that looks like a dungeon, and sits only a few blocks from their downtown. And they had seen a high-flying politician — ideological as the day is long — show up on the Mexican border to talk about New Bedford inmates building a wall to keep out Central American immigrants. These Central American migrants, of course, are the same folks whose Native American faces many New Bedford citizens see every day as they travel down The Avenue or Herman Melville Boulevard.
It was a clear majority of these city residents who said to themselves: “It’s time for this sheriff to go.” And unlike in Fall River or even Taunton or Attleboro, the New Bedfordites said no to Hodsgon in a big way.
An astonishing 12,508 people in the Whaling City, or more than 61% of the voters, cast their ballots for a new sheriff while only 7,922 voted for Hodgson to stay another six years. That’s a difference of 4,586 votes in an overall race that Hodgson lost by about 2,800 votes. In nearby Fall River, which has only seven thousand fewer residents than New Bedford, Hodgson only lost by a little more than 1,200 votes.
The Fall River anti-Hodgson vote may have been depressed a bit by the refusal of Democratic primary race loser Nick Bernier to endorse Heroux, but in reality, it was the city of New Bedford where the Attleboro mayor and the progressive group backing him (Bristol County for Correctional Justice), made their major campaign effort.
“I voted for Paul,” said one woman leaving the Lincoln School on the edge of one of the North End’s lowest-income neighborhoods on Tuesday. She talked as if she knows this 46-year-old mayor who had biked around the city so much during the last year that many folks had their own story to tell about him.
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In my own circle of friends, a Fairhaven woman said Heroux had showed up at her door one day. “He was very down-to-earth,” she said, and they didn’t talk about politics at all.
Paul Heroux says he knocked on some 5,000 doors in New Bedford, and almost 12,000 doors overall. The vast majority of them were in Greater New Bedford, where BCCJ is most active.
On New Bedford’s only AM talk-radio show Wednesday night, the host and callers talked about the amazing number of local folks who had called in to the station in recent months to say that Sheriff-elect Heroux had shown up on their front steps. Some liked him, and some hated him but they all had a story to tell about him, said Tom Kennedy, a former city councilor and regular WBSM-AM caller.
“I do want a change,” said Saraiva, the woman who voted for Heroux at Lincoln School.
Saraiva works at an area nursing home, and her views were firm. “Tom Hodgson,” she said. “You know, the way he was performing his duties these past couple of years. It’s time for a change.”
Saraiva also mentioned that she doesn’t like the gun laws, which has nothing to do with the way Hodgson ran the jail but offers a glimpse into the way at least some in the city view the extreme interpretations of the Second Amendment by right-wing politicians like Hodgson that have helped allow firearms to proliferate on the urban streets of places like New Bedford.
Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety group had funded advertising for Heroux, although Heroux said it was not coordinated with him, which would be prohibited by law.
In fact, Hodgson’s right-wing associations — particularly his unabashed admiration for former President Trump these last six years — proved to be a huge negative for his 2022 campaign.
In his earlier re-election efforts, Hodgson only had to defend himself, and he often made a good case for the not-small reasons against lax approaches to crime control. But by 2022, he had gone so far in aligning himself with the divisive former president that Southcoast Tonight host Marcus Ferro called Hodgson’s Trump associations a literal “albatross” around the sheriff’s neck. By the end, the man who had once dropped the dime to the White House on St. Julie Billiart’s pastor was now distancing himself from the former president.
Because Hodgson had made himself a national figure, closely aligned with Trump and anti-immigration, Heroux said he was able to raise the money necessary to compete with a sheriff who had raised hundreds of thousands since 2010 when he had his last competitive election. That money enabled Heroux, and outside groups, to flood city residents with advertising, much of it in mailer cards. Through Gov. Baker’s PAC, Hodgson had his own outside money that showed up on doorsteps. But the Hodgson ads were also anti-Trump ads in an anti-Trump election.
“Hodgson brought this on himself,” Heroux said, of the high profile the sheriff sought.
The big New Bedford suburbs — Dartmouth and Fairhaven — also voted against Hodgson but only narrowly. So Heroux may have barely edged out Hodgson without New Bedford, but it was the city that made his win indisputable and definitive.
The New Bedford Light provides in-depth analyses of the Nov. 8 elections and what lies ahead after voters made their voices heard.
The suburbanites, even the folks appalled by the sheriff’s policies, are less affected by the dysfunctional circumstances under which the Bristol County House of Correction has long operated than are city folks.
When Hodgson did things like cut down on meal portions or make it expensive for families to phone their loved ones, it was the city’s underclass and their friends and relatives who heard the stories from someone they know personally.
At a Wednesday press conference on the back lawn of the small cottage where he lives on a busy South Attleboro road, Heroux said it had quickly become clear to him when he started knocking on doors in New Bedford that people had had enough of Hodgson.
He realized that the big issue was not going to be recidivism or the high suicide rate or this condition or that at the jail. It was everything. It was all the controversies associated with this incumbent sheriff over 25 controversial years in office, he said. People were just ready for a change.
“When a person stays too long in office, they’re eventually going to get voted out,” he said.
Heroux said he knew this race was not entirely about him but about the guy who had been in office. He had experienced the same thing when he defeated seven-term Attleboro mayor Kevin Dumas, he said.
His calls for reform and evidence-based programs to fight recidivism were important, he said, as was his background in criminal justice and administration, management experience and advertising money. But it was the people who wanted Hodgson gone that was the key.
He referred to a story that a woman had told a reporter who asked her who she was voting for and she said not Hodgson, the other guy.
She wasn’t even sure what the other guy’s name was. But she knew she wasn’t voting for Hodgson.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.