NEW BEDFORD — Mayor Jon Mitchell and Tyson Moultrie, a local nonprofit volunteer and self-employed marketer and communicator, are matched again for the final election Nov. 7, four years after Mitchell won a lopsided race with nearly three-quarters of the votes.
Moultrie spent a bit more than $1,000 on that 2019 campaign, which he said he’d largely conducted online, then finished with $75 in the bank and went back to volunteering and freelance communication gigs, including work with labor unions on equity, diversity and inclusion efforts. Mitchell spent nearly $25,000, closing the campaign with $222,000, and returned to running the city, which he’s been doing since 2012.
Follow The Light for analysis, updates and continuing coverage of the 2023 elections in New Bedford.
There they were again on Wednesday night, side by side for the first time in the 2023 campaign in a forum sponsored by the Mayor’s Youth Council at the YWCA, as Mitchell pursues a sixth term and a second four-year stint. The two men in dark suits and light ties conducted a civil one-hour discussion about their aspirations for the city.
Moultrie, who topped a field of five challengers in the preliminary last month with 357 votes, said he won’t disrupt every Mitchell program, but he emphasized listening to people, a compassionate governing approach and more agile decision-making.
Mitchell, who won 2,544 preliminary votes, emphasized the progress the city has made since he’s been in office in public safety, education, economic development, and his eagerness to see through plans now in the works, including encouraging housing development.
As the evening began, Moultrie’s late-October campaign finance report showed expenses of nearly $2,000 this year, and no money in the bank. Mitchell’s showed expenses of $542 this year and a bank balance of nearly $285,000.
Mitchell told a group of some 30 people gathered on South Sixth Street that he sees New Bedford emerging as a place that is “taken seriously” by its own residents and outsiders — the “economic and cultural center of southeastern Massachusetts.”
Both candidates said the city’s best days are yet to come, but Moultrie questioned whether the pace of decision-making at City Hall was best able to take advantage of opportunities. He said the most pressing issues are the same as they were four years ago, suggesting “we haven’t changed that much.”
Mitchell, 54, served as a federal prosecutor in Washington before coming back to Massachusetts to work as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston, then returned to where he grew up and later ran for mayor in 2011. In personal style, Mitchell is more the careful, cool, calculating prosecutor than a gregarious, glad-handing politician.
Moultrie, 36, who is from Springfield, said in an interview that he lived in five states in five years as part of his service with the Air Force Reserve before moving to Fall River in 2014. Five years later, he moved to New Bedford. He said in an interview that he was struck by how welcoming the city was when he visited. He presents an enthusiastic, open face, and seems to relish talking about his aspirations for the city.
Mitchell’s resume is all public service. Moutrie has never held public office.
Moultrie’s campaign site spells out ambitious, detailed plans for his possible mayoral administration. He covers all the main 21st-century urban concerns: public safety, education, housing, government accountability, workforce development, climate adaptation. Among many other things, he wants to create an office of vocational training, send taxpayers a detailed report on how their money is being spent, establish an affordable housing ordinance and an agency devoted specifically to preventing violence.
He said he has worked with large companies in his communications work, but he cannot say that he has run a big organization. The executive experience he claims is working for a marketing company that he acknowledges folded a few years ago. Nonetheless, his LinkedIn page still shows that he is employed at Why Blue Matters as a “Chief Communications Strategist.”
In an interview, he said he is still doing consulting work for the Rhode Island Black Business Association and producing a podcast, “Diversified Game.” Since he ran in 2019, he said he’s been learning the city by volunteering for local nonprofits, including New Bedford Strong, 3rd EyE Youth Empowerment, and STEAM the Streets. In an interview, he described himself as a “stand-in chief communications officer for anyone who wants it.”
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Mitchell’s understated tone is a striking contrast. In an interview in the waning days of a low-key campaign, he said that much of what he’d do with the next four years is grounded in the analysis and planning that his administration has done up to now.
He emphasized the deliberate approach his administration has taken, for instance, to a 2018-2023 plan for the Port of New Bedford, all of which he said has been accomplished or is in the works. The plan includes investment in port infrastructure, developing the North Terminal, stepped-up promotion of the port, and diversifying the industries that make their home there.
A port development showpiece has been the years-long effort to create a staging ground for the offshore wind industry. This year, as Mitchell noted during the YWCA forum, the first wind turbine parts arrived by barge from Europe to be assembled on the port under an array of towering cranes.
His administration this year also unveiled a plan to address the housing crunch by working on several fronts: speeding construction permitting, particularly of multifamily developments; stepping up efforts to recruit developers; getting vacant properties back into the housing supply; and selling unused city property that could be turned into housing. In an interview, he said some 200 units of housing are likely to hit the market in the next nine to 12 months.
He said the city is about to hire someone to shepherd some 400 vacant properties through whatever legal or other obstacles are keeping them off the market as possible housing.
In his opening comments in the forum, Mitchell offered a few markers of progress under his administration: high school graduation rates rising from 60% to more than 80%; unemployment dropping from 12% or 13% to 5%; and crime dropping 38%. He said the port has benefited from $100 million in infrastructure investment — the most since the whaling days — and the city has been recognized nationally as a leader in solar installations.
Moultrie did not challenge any of that, nor were his criticisms unduly harsh. He did take one shot in response to Mitchell saying more needed to be done to get public school attendance back to pre-pandemic norms.
“Showing up is important. I stressed that in the last three debates,” Moultrie said, referring to Mitchell’s absence at the three previous candidates nights in October. Mitchell claimed there were scheduling conflicts.
Moultrie also stressed that he would be a good listener, and does not claim to be “the smartest person in the room.”
Those remarks target Mitchell’s reputation for letting his signature cool slip too far into arrogance.
Asked about that criticism, Mitchell said in an interview that it’s a hazard of pushing to get things done.
“I can’t say I’m the most patient man,” he said. “The job, if it’s done the right way, doesn’t allow for tapping the brakes. Sometimes that sort of mindset can come across as being hasty or dismissive… Attending to relationships is important, and I could do better with that.”
For his part, Moultrie said at the forum that he knows he presents a particular challenge for some voters. As a mayoral candidate, his identity sets him apart from all those who have held the office before.
Since the city was founded in 1847, 28 people have been elected to the post, many several times as the term of office changed from one year to two to four. All have been white.
“People are afraid of difference,” Moultrie said. “I am different. I have to ask you not to be scared of something different.”
Mitchell closed by saying that his role is not to be a legislator or an activist, but to “lead, set a vision, and hold people around you accountable … I’ll hold up our record against any city in the United States.”
Email City Hall reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.