You would be forgiven if you wandered into the Carney Academy candidates night this week and thought somehow you’d been transported to a town in Idaho.

New Bedford is supposed to be a big Democratic city, if not so much a big liberal city, but of the 10 candidates at the councilor-at-large debate Tuesday, only one of them, Shane Burgo, could be classified as a progressive in any way.

Between conservative incumbent councilors — Linda Morad, Naomi Carney, Brian Gomes and conservative-sounding challengers Scott Pemberton and Lisa White (who announced the next day on Facebook that she is a Libertarian) — you’d have thought you were at an election for the Republican City Committee as much as for the non-partisan City Council.


You really would not have been surprised if former President Trump had made an appearance shouting, “Make New Bedford Great Again!” and the candidates at the council table all started banging their fists and shouting, “Four more years!” “Four more years!”


Incumbent Councilor Ian Abreu and challengers Paul Chasse and David Sullivan sounded very much moderate to conservative. Candidate Jason Mello, who wasn’t in attendance, has also sounded that way on the campaign trail. All in all, the council choices this year are very much looking mostly to the right of Joe Manchin, if not Ralph Saulnier. (For those of you who arrived in town less than 20 years ago, Saulnier was one of the city’s most legendary City Council Republicans, who himself eventually ended up working on the city payroll, of course.)

It’s not that New Bedford has ever been all that leftward-leaning a burg. It’s very much a traditionalist place, with Old World values playing a big role. But in the past, there have always been a number of liberal-minded folks — at least when it came to the kind of social safety net programs of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Think George Rogers, George Smith, Marlene Pollock and even Scott Lang.

Not so much Tuesday night. And evidently not so much this year.

For two-plus hours, from a variety of voices, we heard all about the personal right not to wear a mask or be vaccinated; how it’s only that very rare police officer who ever stereotypes people of color; and how if we just gave more tax breaks to owner-occupying landlords, rent and home prices would undoubtedly come down in New Bedford.

Several of the councilors took their masks off for much of the debate, even when they weren’t speaking. Candidate White never wore one at all, despite the indoor event at the school auditorium running for more than two hours. 

You really would not have been surprised if former President Trump had made an appearance shouting, “Make New Bedford Great Again!” and the candidates at the council table all started banging their fists and shouting, “Four more years!” “Four more years!”

White made the argument that’s popular in right-wing media — and echoed several other times by others at the council table — that people understandably won’t get vaccinated because the issue has been made partisan. “We need to work on taking the political stigma off the vaccine,” she said.

So, when candidate Burgo announced that he had been vaccinated early; that he intends to get his booster shot on Oct. 23; and that he had discussed publicly with his social media friends what his post-vaccine symptoms were, it stood out. No one else at the forum had talked much about their personal experience with the jab, mostly alluding to it only in terms of philosophical or political beliefs.

“New Bedford hasn’t done enough in educating the residents on how important the vaccines are,” Burgo said, trying to emphasize the value of the personal story to one’s friends and family.

In fairness, despite all the conservative talking points, some interesting ideas were actually raised at the Carney Academy forum. 

Perhaps most surprising were the divisions on the council about keeping the downtown police station open. Though an already conservative-leaning council has repeatedly voted overwhelmingly to keep it open, there were some cracks in the police union shield Tuesday night.

Councilor Morad turned to two downtown restaurateurs in the audience and apologized, but said she increasingly finds it hard to justify keeping the downtown station open when her constituents in the North End and South End commercial districts ask her why they don’t have a police substation. 

Would-be Councilor White was even more frank: “Close it! Close it!” she proclaimed, agreeing with the mayor, Morad and others that policing nowadays is largely done from patrol cars, which are computerized and equipped with all sorts of telecommunication. In fact, no city the size of New Bedford in Massachusetts operates multiple police stations. Certainly not four of them.


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Morad also weighed in with a daring idea on a question that debate organizer Buddy Andrade unexpectedly posed to the candidates on the perennial problem of the lack of living-wage jobs in New Bedford — even when big construction projects come to the city, or the burgeoning wind turbine staging business is set to launch. She said that she has said for her 16 years on the council that the city should run two vocational high schools and train the kids not seeking an academic degree for good-paying jobs from the get-go.

The long-term councilor is not the only one to pitch this plan, and Gov. Charlie Baker has said he is open to it if it came from the city. But Mayor Mitchell has consistently shown little interest, stressing that he believes the need is to improve the comprehensive high school.

To be fair, there was one small glimmer of forward-thinking as the Carney candidates’ ship listed ever rightward. Virtually all the candidates agreed that the mayor had too quickly dismissed a report of racial bias against New Bedford youth in the city police department. More than one noted that Mitchell seems relentlessly focused on image over substance when it comes to observations that racism is a problem in policing in New Bedford.

None other than Councilor Carney, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, remarked on the problem of profiling, even though she said it only occurs with some “bad apples” rather than as a symptom of systemic racism. 

Then she said: “I don’t like people preaching to me about who I am and what I experience in my community,” apparently referring to the Boston-based group, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, that released a critical report this spring.

Burgo, a twenty-something caseworker with the Department of Transitional Assistance, framed the problem differently than the incumbent. He gave a direct example of what it’s like for young people of color in the city when they step out of their perceived boundaries. He said his older brothers have told him of being stopped by officers while walking home from football practice on Hawthorn Street, the city’s most affluent boulevard.

“We like to sweep these issues under the rug,” he said. “We don’t like to address it head on.”

Few in New Bedford would wish the 11-member council to consist only of progressives. That’s probably wise. But the same could be said of conservatives, and the body is very definitely in danger of lacking anyone from the left, something that would make it unrepresentative of the city.

According to the 10-year U.S. Census released this year, more than 24% of New Bedford residents are now Latinos, roughly divided between Puerto Ricans and those from Central America, a significant number of whom are undocumented.

What’s more, the city remains largely working-class with the median income of just $26,000. Those folks used to be Democrats and believers in the Roosevelt/Johnson safety net. Maybe they’re not anymore. Maybe most of the liberals have moved to Padanaram and Mattapoisett. 

But a City Council most concerned about landlords and city worker unions is not going to make the lives of those living in the three-families on Ruth Street and the cottages on Mill any more hopeful.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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