With voter participation considered meager even for a preliminary special election, even for a New Bedford ward known for low turnouts, a correctional officer and a science teacher turned school administrator topped a field of seven candidates in the preliminary election Tuesday for an open Ward 3 seat on the City Council.
Shawn Oliver, 39, and Carmen Amaral, 43, both of the west side of the ward, prevailed with 28% and 23% as 6.5% of voters took part in the special election on a chilly, overcast day. The two candidates in the nonpartisan election will compete for votes in the general election on Feb. 28 to fill the remaining year in the seat that had been held by Hugh Dunn, who stepped down in December.
The two finished ahead of part-time real estate broker and former Ward 3 councilor Kathy Dehner; Robert Bromley, a budget analyst at the Rhode Island State Senate; Jacob J. Ventura, a lawyer; Robert Cabral, a former entrepreneur and advocate for homeless people; and John Robinson, a musician and former music teacher.
“I’m a hard worker,” Oliver, an officer at MCI-Cedar Junction, formerly known as MCI-Walpole, a maximum security state prison, said at City Hall soon after the outcome was announced. “Sometimes I work myself to the bone and that’s what’s proven” to have made the difference, he said.
During the campaign, around mid-December, Oliver said he figured he had knocked on about 3,000 doors.
“I didn’t spend money,” he said, estimated he spent about half the $5,000 of his own money he put into the campaign.
He won 193 votes to Amaral’s 160. Next was Bromley with 133, followed by Ventura with 85, Dehner with 53, Cabral with 40 and Robinson with 19.
Amaral, the academic coordinator for Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical School in Rochester, also said the result reflected the hard campaigning, and her message of being a constituent advocate.
“I think it was the hard work,” said Amaral. “I think people were ready for a city councilor who they thought could do the job.”
All the candidates stressed their commitment to better constituent services, as they heard from many voters in the course of campaigning who were not happy with the city’s lack of response to an array of complaints about dark streetlights, potholes, street cleaning, lack of public parks and playgrounds.
A number of candidates said voters generally felt they were being ignored, but in this special election, voters were not making their voices heard at the ballot box. Precincts across the ward reported strikingly low voter totals.
Given the time of year and an election in only one ward with no well-known candidate running, a skimpy turnout was predictable, but the outcome was poor even by these low expectations.
The turnout fell short of the mark set in the Ward 3 preliminary special election in March 2017, when Dunn and Beth Santos-Fauteux topped a field of six candidates. In that election, 718 voters, or just over 7% of about 9,600 voters cast ballots. The vote was slightly lower in the general election in April 2017, as 685 voters cast ballots.
The total vote Tuesday was 686 out of 10,534 registered voters, 6.5%.
“I expected more, so far, to be honest,” said Manny DeBrito, head of the Board of Elections Commissioners, as he made his second round of polling places, stopping at Hillside Court on Coggeshall Street at about 2:30 p.m. At that point, he figured about 150 people had shown up at the polls.
“What more can we do?” DeBrito said, citing his agency’s efforts to publicize the election and work with community organizations on voter participation.
“It’s just voter apathy. We need people to get out and vote, especially in that area. It’s a very mixed area,” he said, referring to the combination of middle class and low income sections in a ward that stretches across the city’s mid-section, from the Dartmouth line to the Acushnet River waterfront.
By shortly after 10 in the morning, for instance, more than three hours after the polls opened, one voter had cast a ballot at Precinct 3A, the Hayden-McFadden Elementary School.
“It’s going to be a long day for us,” said William Santos, the poll warden.
Poll worker Sue Gillespie sat with her three colleagues at a table set with voter SWAG: ballpoint pens, and a bag of bite-size Snickers, Milky Ways and 3 Musketeers. She had just cracked a copy of Prince Harry’s 410-page memoir, “Spare.”
“If we keep going this way I’ll finish it tonight,” she said.
At the nearby polling place at Hillside Court, an apartment building run by the New Bedford Housing Authority on Coggeshall Street, about 30 voters had cast ballots by 3 p.m., eight hours into this special election day.
Chakira Gonsalves-El Khoury was voter 28 there. She said she’s always lived in Ward 3 and considers it her duty to vote.
“You can’t complain about something if you’re not voting,” said Gonsalves-El Khoury, who works in communications for the campus police at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. “As a minority female I take it very seriously.”
Nick Kosta, who was the fourth voter at Hayden-McFadden Tuesday morning, said he voted for Oliver, a personal friend. If not for his relationship with Oliver, he said he would not likely have voted.
“[I’ve known] Shawn at least 10 years,” he said. “We play softball together.”
L. Charlton, who was voting Tuesday evening for Oliver at Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a polling place with two precincts registering one of the higher turnouts with 313 votes, said she wouldn’t miss the chance to cast her ballot.
“I always vote,” she said, “‘cause my people died for the right to vote.”
Amaral has stressed her skills as an advocate that were honed at an early age. As one of two children in a family of Azorean immigrants, she and her brother were the English speakers in the home and had to manage health care, government bureaucracy and other services for their parents, said Amaral, who came to this country when she was four years old.
When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she helped to coordinate treatments before her mother died at 44, when Amaral was 13.
“Advocacy’s in my blood, or I was conditioned that way,” Amaral said in an interview during the campaign. She said she’s lived in the ward about 10 years and this has been her first run for public office.
As a former science teacher, Amaral also highlighted the need for council members to analyze information before making decisions, and to be willing to change their position to adjust to new information.
Oliver said he knocked thousands of Ward 3 doors in his first bid for public office. He said about 3,000 of them, and that was mid-December. It was a significant measure of the voter mood, which was not happy. Voters felt ignored, their concerns too easily put aside.
“There’s a history of being forgotten, with past representation,” he said during the campaign. “These people are begging for proper representation.”
Oliver said he can provide that on the council, even though he has a full-time job that takes him away from the city every work day.
His affable demeanor might belie the fact that he spends his work days at a prison. He might seem more suited to, well, a position in politics.
“The biggest thing is communication, follow-up and more communication,” he said, adding that he’s already set up a second phone line dedicated to Ward 3 residents. The better to address this nagging sense people seem to have that they’re not being heard.
The traffic jams on Hathaway Road, for instance, have been talked about for years. Now there’s a city effort afoot to attract more intense commercial development on a portion of the Whaling City Golf Course, but residents are not sure what’s happening with that.
“The city does not so good a job communicating what’s going on,” said Oliver, who grew up in the South End in Ward 6 and moved to Ward 3 only two years ago. Immediately before that his family was in Wareham, as his wife was working in Plymouth at the time.
He means to try to fix that, but first, more ward-walking to do.
“Pick up where we left off,” said Oliver, when asked what’s next. “Start from the beginning and work our way back. And I need to buy a new pair of shoes.”
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org