Standing in the cold outside of the Hazelwood Park community center Tuesday morning, Ryan Pereira talked to his brain trust like a seasoned pro.
They were concerned about a disabled resident who might not be able to get out to the polls, and Ryan said he was going to leave the sign-holding for a bit to make sure the voter got there.
If there was one Pereira sign at the voting precincts for Ward 6 A and B, there were 20 of them. They were all over the place. The Pereira forces had both sides of the entrance to the community building guarded with cars bearing even more political signs.
The campaign of incumbent Ward 6 Councilor Joe Lopes, with three or four signs across the entrance, looked overwhelmed.
What’s more, at mid-morning not only was the candidate himself on location at the ward’s two most active voting precincts, so was the beloved Victor Pinheiro, a legendary former Ward 6 councilor. Victor and his family are like royalty in the city’s South End.
The Portuguese brain trust behind the scenes for the Pereira campaign was reportedly even larger, with everyone from Ryan’s father, businessman Joe Pereira, to attorney Barry Syliva and others from the city’s Portuguese-American leadership class all on board.
Success in politics often boils down to who runs the best campaign, regardless of policy messages and character of the candidates. And if that is the case, Ryan Pereira certainly ran the best campaign of the 2021 New Bedford political season.
Not too far behind him, although starting quite a bit later, was Councilor-at-large-elect Shane Burgo.
Burgo, a manager at the Department of Transitional Assistance and a graduate of Global Learning Charter Public High School, talked openly in the campaign about his parents’ struggles with drug addiction and his brothers’ experience with prejudice from New Bedford police officers. But it was Burgo’s willingness to pour his own money into his own campaign and pound the pavement raising funds from his friends and supporters that demonstrated he was serious about winning.
By the time Burgo got to the candidates’ debates, he had found his confidence and was speaking with authority about his lived New Bedford experience, growing up in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. He had captured the imagination of not only the Cape Verdean-American community, but of the city itself.
He attracted support from folks like the Coalition for Social Justice and attorney Jim Lopes and still others. He did the door-to-door, dropping the door-hangers that are necessary to getting your name out.
It’s not that others in the race did not do similar things to Pereira and Burgo, it is that the two Generation Z’ers did it most effectively.
With Burgo’s election, five of 11 city councilors in New Bedford are now persons of color. That’s something the city can take pride in and illustrates the changing nature of the city.
Just a word here about Paul Chasse, a quality councilor at-large candidate who has finished just out of the running in sixth place in two successive races. It is a shame the city won’t benefit from his background and abilities on the council.
It was not only challengers who prevailed in the handful of competitive races that made up this year’s New Bedford election.
Up in Ward 1, two-term incumbent Brad Markey barely held off a challenge from financial adviser Leo Choquette.
Markey is one of the councilors who has a demanding full-time job, and Choquette ran a smart campaign playing on his perceived lack of availability to the constituents. Pereira did a version of the same theme in the South End, where Lopes, who works as the deputy manager of the Workforce Development Board, also has a demanding job.
Being a city councilor in New Bedford is ostensibly a part-time position, but in an era of high expectations from the public, and a sometimes grueling schedule of council night meetings, it can be a lot of work.
Markey, however, geared up his campaign in the last few weeks, pounding on the doors and talking to the constituents, advertising some of the work he’s done behind-the-scenes, like on the traffic at the Pulaski School, for constituents.
He hung on and won by 44 votes.
There was not one overriding theme in this election.
In Ward 6, Lopes — a supporter of Mayor Jon Mitchell — lost, but in Ward 1, Markey, a supporter of the mayor, won. Burgo, the lone indisputable progressive in the at-large race, seemed to benefit from other challengers who all struck moderate to conservative stances.
In Ward 5, Scott Lima, an incumbent, won overwhelmingly. But on the School Committee, two challengers polled slightly more votes than incumbent Colleen Dawicki; though with no opposition in that race, all three won.
Ian Abreu, an incumbent at-large councilor, demonstrated he will be a power to be reckoned with for the future, garnering some 700 more votes than his nearest at-large challenger.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this year’s election was the ability of the city to focus solely on the council races. With no mayor’s race to drain away the spotlight (the voters have approved a four-year mayoral cycle), there was as much attention on these would-be councilors as we’ve perhaps seen in many years.
The election is over, it’s another campaign year in the can.
We can bemoan the ever-decreasing citizen interest in voting in New Bedford. Not only did only 10.8% of the registered voters turn out, in some of the precincts that will make up the new majority-minority House district, the voter turnouts was an astonishing 1.59% and 1.71%. If that’s not a warning for democracy in the city, it’s hard to imagine what is.
Keep your eye on the newcomers to city government — Pereira, Burgo and the two new School Committee members, Ross Grace Jr. and Melissa Ortega Costa.
It will be interesting to see what they bring to the table.
Correction: This story was amended on Nov. 4, 2021, to correct an error in the number of votes separating incumbent City Councilor Ian Abreu from his nearest at-large challenger.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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