We are not going to have the competitive mayor’s race in New Bedford that many people think the city needs.
Twelve years into what has been the mostly successful mayorship of Jon Mitchell, the incumbent increasingly has reputable critics on everything from his emphasis on the wind turbine industry to the rapidly escalating cost of housing in the city.
But when it came right down to it, no one of stature was willing to do what previously successful New Bedford mayoral challengers like Scott Lang and Fred Kalisz and John Bullard did — challenge an incumbent chief executive.
This year we are also, most probably, not going to have a question on the November ballot on whether there should be term limits for city councilors. The organizers seemed not to understand that changing a city charter requires the guidance of a lawyer, or at least someone very well-versed in municipal election law.
Rightly or wrongly, Catherine Adamowicz did not get the guidance she needed from either the city Elections or Solicitor’s offices or a private professional attorney. She should have spent the money and hired a lawyer for the full effort, not to mention tried to broaden her effort beyond just herself and her partner, Paul Hankins.
In making a change to a municipality’s form of government, the people who succeed are the ones who are able to draw in a variety of different citizens and leaders into their organizational efforts. A broadened coalition would probably have included someone well-versed enough to know that researching referendum law is a complicated process that needs to involve professionals.
This year in New Bedford, we are also not going to have a single challenger to any of the three incumbent School Committee members who are running for re-election.
You can argue about the amount of improvement of the New Bedford school system over Mitchell’s long tenure — graduation rates went up at least for a while, but student performance on the state’s comprehensive tests (MCAS) definitely did not go up. And yet no one could even be bothered to challenge incumbents Bruce Oliveira, Jack Livramento and Christopher Cotter. That betokens a lack of interest in public education that does not bode well for the city in the future.
But let’s not focus on what we are not going to have in this year’s election, let’s focus on what we are going to have.
And we are going to have the most competitive councilor at-large race that New Bedford has seen in many years. If anything is going to shake up a city election system that overwhelmingly favors incumbents — especially for the five of 11 council positions devoted to at-large members — it is this year’s candidates for that office.
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Two of the folks challenging the five at-large incumbents — who by state law have their names listed first on the ballot — have already been city councilors, either this past term or within a few years.
Incumbent Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima and former Ward 4 Councilor Bruce Duarte Jr. have both served three terms on the council, and both are going to try to switch to become at-large councilors. They have moderate track records and high-name recognition, which is important in a local election.
Two other at-large candidates — education professional Carmen Amaral and small restaurant owner Devin Byrnes — are well-known figures in the city who have admirable public track records. Amaral finished second in the special Ward 3 election last winter and Byrnes is a well-known fixture in the downtown restaurant and charitable event scenes.
These folks all have a chance, but the incumbents will still be favored. That’s because there are built-in biases in both Massachusetts and New Bedford election law that favor them.
On the actual ballot that you see on Election Day, look for the names of the incumbents — Ian Abreu, Brian Gomes, Linda Morad, Naomi Carney and Shane Burgo — to come first. You will have to look down to the sixth candidate before seeing the name of a challenger.
New Bedford could change this system on the local level, but you guessed it, that would take a ballot referendum or City Council action to alter the city charter. Not impossible, but as Adamowicz found out, a heavy lift.
Still, the high quality of some of these at-large challengers could reflect a desire in the city for some sort of ousting of incumbents. It’s not that hard to get people to sign a petition for almost any purpose. Still it says something meaningful that some 2,700 folks signed the term-limit ones circulated by Adamowicz and Hankins.
At-large city councilor is an odd office.
The holders of the position do not represent a particular neighborhood or section of the city the way that ward councilors do. They are more like the city’s senators, representing the whole of New Bedford.
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That’s not a bad idea, but the problem is that there are not five distinct at-large races for five different at-large seats. If the city voted that way, you could have a two-person final election and a chance that the person who wins really reflects the voters’ strong choice.
But in the system that New Bedford has, 10 candidates run for five seats, all in the same at-large race. All you have to do is win enough votes to finish in the second, third, fourth or fifth places to win a full seat on the City Council.
My guess is that the state has designed this system in order to ensure that the entire council is not limited to the most popular people. There is a place for minority views, even special-interest views. There may even be a value to having a certain number of incumbent councilors guiding the newly elected ones.
The problem in New Bedford, however, is that we have two very long-serving incumbent councilors who are indisputably the most divisive forces in city government right now: Brian Gomes and Linda Morad.
Experienced councilors, they are incontrovertibly leaders on the council but often not in a good way. They have been making the same points, having the same disagreements with a succession of different mayors, for years and years and years.
Also, in order to win one of five spots in the 10-person at-large City Council race, you can cater to one of the city’s special interest groups — municipal union members, small business people, social service advocates — and garner more votes than challengers who do not have the ability to do favors for these limited interest groups.
It doesn’t matter how good a candidate’s ideas are, or how grounded they are in the life of the community, they can still finish far out of the running in the New Bedford at-large race.
Lima and Duarte in the past have both been known as reasonable voices on the council, consensus builders as opposed to flamethrowers. They, as well as Amaral and Byrnes, will have a chance against some of the incumbents who, it’s fair to say, have had the misfortune of serving during one of the most chaotic years for the City Council in many years.
This year’s council has had to reverse itself twice in well-publicized cases.
First came the lucrative pay raises it provided through job reclassifications to a handful of favored city employees. And then, out of nowhere and on a single night, the council approved not one, not two, but three referendum questions for the November ballot. After a public outcry, the body reversed itself on all of them a month later.
Rent control, a return to a two-year mayoral term, and the reversal of a small property tax surcharge (the Community Preservation Act) that pays for community projects the city could not otherwise afford, are all serious issues. If the council had wanted to hold hearings, or recommend a referendum initiative process, that’s one thing. But placing questions on the ballot because of a dozen or so complaints, or your own long-standing opposition to a four-year mayoral term that itself just passed a few years ago, is another.
This New Bedford election, there are also competitive council races in wards 1 and 5, so there’s a possibility for a big council shakeup.
It’s only a possibility. But at least it’s something of significance for New Bedford voters to concentrate on this year.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at email@example.com.