Even in this bluest corner of the country, politics has become so divisive that raising the name Donald Trump and his highest-profile Massachusetts supporter is guaranteed to  instantly engender a bad case of heartburn, if not worse.

It’s safe to say that 24-year Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson was our local Donald Trump before Trump himself came down the escalator proclaiming that undocumented immigrants were criminals, drug-dealers and rapists.

Hodgson’s tough-love and hard-line immigration policies and views at the Dartmouth House of Correction, Ash Street Jail and Bristol County ICE detention center have deeply divided progressives and conservatives on the South Coast for more than two decades. For a man who is almost always personally charming and courteous, the high sheriff’s policies have resulted in a never-healing wound to those inmate families and supporters who would like to see their loved ones and inmates — whether held pretrial or post-trial, for serious or minor crimes — treated more humanely and with more of an understanding of the social, economic and familial forces that drove them to their plight.  

From Hodgson’s use of chain gangs (tandem work crews) to his efforts to charge inmates exorbitant prices for phone calls to his facilities’ high suicide rates to what Attorney General Maura Healey called an over-the-top response to a demonstration at his former ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) building, Tom Hodgson for two-plus decades has been a magnet for alarming headlines. My personal favorite was when he dropped a dime to the White House on his own pastor at St. Julie Billiart Church in Dartmouth for making brochures available in the back of the church that advised undocumented immigrants of their legal rights.

But even though Massachusetts and Bristol County may be blue in a comparative sense, the truth is that there are many in Greater New Bedford and beyond who are attracted to Tom Hodgson’s law-and-order sounding methods and philosophies. Many folks who are progressive on pocketbook issues, nonetheless subscribe to the sheriff’s tough-on-crime bromides, even in the face of all evidence that a restorative approach to crime is far more effective.

The truth is that the power of the easy “solutions” proposed by political figures like Trump and Hodgson is greatly appealing, even in Massachusetts. Trump has polled stronger in Greater New Bedford than other Republican candidates have — he even twice won the towns of Acushnet and Freetown, and won a slightly greater share of the 2020 New Bedford vote than he did in 2016.

For his part, Hodgson, after being appointed a temporary sheriff by former Republican Gov. Bill Weld in 1997, has gone on to easily win re-election four times, in 1998, 2004, 2010 and 2016.

In 1998, the tough-talking Hodgson easily defeated former Democratic state Rep. Joe McIntyre by 10 percentage points. McIntryre was the brother-in-law of the late Mayor Fred Kalisz, and a candidate with strong progressive credentials. In 2010, Hodgson defeated former state Rep. John Quinn by the same margin. Quinn, the brother of current District Attorney Thomas Quinn, was a popular incumbent with a strong Democratic network in the region. 

Hodgson, 67, has announced that he intends to run for a fifth full term, and this year he has drawn a couple of Democratic challengers with healthy credentials.

Fall River attorney Nicholas Bernier, 36, has quickly won some impressive endorsements from the city’s incumbent political establishment. State Sen. Mike Rodrigues, state reps. Carole Fiola and Alan Silvia and Governor’s Councilor Joe Ferreira. That’s not nothing, but Bernier is also carrying some political baggage.

The up-and-coming attorney was one of the federal government’s principal witnesses in the corruption trial of former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia. He was the chief operating officer of SnoOwl, the then 23-year-old Correia’s start-up tech company, until he says he realized the former mayor was misusing investor funds. Correia was convicted of defrauding SnoOwl investors, among other charges, last May.

Bernier was never charged in the case and perhaps he is telling the truth about his relationship with Correia. But he can expect Hodgson to go after him on his connection to the one-time boy wonder mayor, whose trail of malfeasance has caused deep shame and heartbreak in much of Fall River. Bernier will have to make some sort of convincing acknowledgment about his bad judgment with Correia if he is to persuade voters they should remove Hodgson.

Bernier is not the only Democratic candidate in waiting. 

This week, Hodgson drew a second challenger who on paper also presents a plausible competitor. Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux is a former state rep who has some background in corrections in both Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Though Attleboro is only about half the size of Fall River, it is located in the more conservative and Republican northern part of the county, where Hodgson has been strong. That should be a plus for him.

Heroux just started his third term as mayor but he has been a popular incumbent, and his bio is that of a man with big talent and ambition. He could be expected to stress some forward-looking management and environmentally progressive actions he employed as mayor.

Heroux, the son of local pharmacy owners, has an interesting resume and wide variety of interests. He holds master’s degrees from Harvard, UPenn, and the London School of Economics. And he may be as media savvy as Hodgson himself, most endearingly garnering attention for a 12-day cross-country road trip he took with his terminally-ill dog Mura.

Both Bernier and Heroux have laid out goals to move the Dartmouth and New Bedford holding facilities in a direction that would make them more progressive.

Bernier talks about improving safety for inmates and working conditions for corrections officers. He wants what he says would be better drug rehabilitation programs for inmates. Heroux is talking about improving reentry programs for housing, employment, health care and drug treatment.

Hodgson has said he already runs the types of programs Bernier and Heroux are talking about. He chalks up much of the criticism he has received from local activist group Bristol County for Correctional Justice to political differences with him because he supports Trump.

But BCCJ’s efforts have also resulted in statewide attention to Hodgson, including an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey of a 2020 uprising at the ICE facility. The federal government has since revoked Hodgson’s ability to operate that building, citing “unacceptable” conditions in Dartmouth and another facility in Georgia.

An investigation by the government reform group Common Cause spotlighted Hodgson this week in a study it undertook of the political contributions to sheriffs of businesses that have contracts with the detention centers that sheriffs operate. The study was undertaken on behalf of a coalition called Communities for Sheriff Accountability, which includes BCCJ.

Hodgson was criticized for receiving over $324,000 in contributions from businesses that have a financial interest in the operation of his detention centers. Hodgson’s office has pointed out that the contributions are not a violation of Massachusetts campaign finance laws, and predicted that they are just the first of many political attacks during the campaign.

If Bernier and Heroux are going to get their messages out against the sheriff, they will have some catching up to do against Hodgson in the campaign funding department. According to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, as of Dec. 31, 2021, Hodgson had more than $293,000 in his account vs. just about $14,000 for Bernier and $330 for Heroux, who just finished his mayoral re-election campaign in November.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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