Every once in a while a new leader emerges, even in a place as small as New Bedford.
Over the past few years we’ve seen a new leader in the city.
Freshman City Councilor Shane Burgo came from nowhere two years ago to win the fifth at-large seat on the City Council when he was just 28 years old.
Now, at 30, he has moved from fifth place to second place in the at-large race in just his first re-election bid.
Burgo moved up in the at-large race despite the fact that many — who I believe may be misreading the mood of the electorate in the city — had pronounced him politically dead. More than a few of the pundits and insiders wrongly thought that Burgo’s sponsorship of a rent stabilization ballot question was somehow hugely unpopular in a city in which 61 percent of householders are renters.
If nothing else, the results of New Bedford’s Oct. 3 preliminary election indicates that the dismissal of the rent stabilization ballot question by Mayor Jon Mitchell and the majority of city councilors represented too quick a burial for the issue of rapidly escalating housing costs in the city.
Burgo did not run away from his position on housing costs in his re-election campaign. He embraced it.
When he lost the fight for the ballot question, he rolled up his sleeves and set to holding a new set of hearings aimed at developing a new plan for rent stabilization.
Now, I’ve expressed some concerns myself about traditional forms of rent control but the kind of rent stabilization Burgo is talking about is designed to protect mom-and-pop landlords, and also to protect city residents from the kind of predatory out-of-town housing speculators that are everywhere in the city right now. I don’t know about you, but not a week goes by that I myself don’t receive a card in the mail saying “Hi, Mr. New Bedford home owner, we’re John and Mary Doe and we’d like to buy your house. Call or text us today!”
I don’t think I’m alone. The passenger train is coming. People are being priced out of Boston and Providence, and the quality of life has increased in New Bedford in recent years.
Burgo made some mistakes in his freshman term.
Primary among them, in my opinion, was letting long-term councilors Linda Morad and Brian Gomes draw him into their own agendas.
Gomes latched on to Burgo’s ballot question in a misguided attempt to realize the old New Bedford political Machine’s quest to kill the four-year mayoral term. And then Morad did the same thing with her ill-fated scheme to realize her long-standing desire to kill the Community Preservation Act surtax with her own ballot question.
What’s more, Burgo went along with councilors Morad and Naomi Carney’s hare-brained idea to give certain city employees big salary reclassification bumps. It was a plan that for all the world looked like an effort to reward certain department heads and city workers who were their pals.
Even with all that, Burgo rose in the preliminary election voting Tuesday as Gomes, Morad and Carney all declined from previously higher finishes on the councilor at-large ballot.
Some will chalk this all up to Burgo getting out his vote in a low voter turnout preliminary election. But while the turnout was low, it was not appreciably lower than recent voter turnouts in New Bedford’s immediate suburbs of Dartmouth and Fairhaven. Some statistics about that in a minute.
The fact is that Shane Burgo is a likable, intelligent and fair-minded guy, and people think he’s done a good job on the council. I also think people respect what he’s tried to do about housing costs.
The mayor should take a lesson that his holding press conferences for housing projects largely accomplished by other folks — I’m talking about the ones engineered by Steve Beauregard and Gerry Kavanaugh, as if they were his own accomplishments — is not a convincing argument that he really understands the problem.
Mitchell is not wrong in his belief that spurring new construction is probably the most important ingredient in the city’s attempt to control housing costs. But he is wrong that construction alone will be enough to address the problem for the thousands of elderly and low-income renters who are being squeezed out of their living spaces right now.
So Burgo has proved that he is going to be a force to be reckoned with going forward in city politics. And this will be true even if he falls back down a bit in the final election. He is not falling off the council as some had predicted.
Also noteworthy on Tuesday were the sixth- and seventh-place finishes in the at-large race of incumbent Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima and Devin Byrnes, the owner of Destination Soups in the downtown.
Lima is doing what few have done in New Bedford politics in recent years. He has given up a safe Ward 5 seat to try to win a citywide seat in the at-large race. He says it’s because his interests have shifted to the waterfront and the city as a whole. I think he may have bigger ambitions than just an at-large council seat. Good for him, he’s mainly a middle-of-the road, reasonable councilor.
Byrnes is a mostly new face on the political scene, though he’s been active in advocating for small downtown business for some time. I’ve been a regular customer of his at his soup shop for years, and my sense is that his biggest goal is to be a voice for the small business owner, particularly in the downtown.
The perspective of small business owners is not one that is unknown on the council or in the mayor’s office. But whether small business owners feel those folks sufficiently respond to them is another matter. I’ll want to know more about what Byrnes thinks about the problems facing the city in general. He’s definitely someone whose professional, business demeanor resonated with voters in the preliminary.
Gomes, Morad and Carney seem to have some problems. They have all slipped in the polling, and Lima in particular is very close on the heels to Morad and Carney. And there were only 17 votes between Morad and Carney on Tuesday.
Morad has the campaign funds to spend some money, but Carney may have to do it with shoe leather. They both might want to consider what it was about their performance the last two years that made them slip at the polls — and be straight with the voters about that.
A word about Councilor Ian Abreu who once again topped the ballot. Abreu is a hard-working, affable councilor who has made a name for himself on constituent services. That’s fine. It’s important to return phone calls, and to show people things can get done in their neighborhoods. I do have questions about Abreu’s commitment to everyone in the city, particularly on his votes against placing the mayor’s nominees on the Voc-Tech boards and his views on rent stabilization.
In the Ward 5 race, former Ward 6 Councilor Joe Lopes, who was trounced by freshman Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira in the last municipal election, has moved to Ward 5 and did very well in the preliminary election. He polled 666 votes to Zach Boyer’s 377, beating him 2 to 1. Two other candidates were far behind.
Boyer, a social worker, is a progressive and has had the backing of the Coalition for Social Justice. Lopes, a moderate in the past, had former mainstream Councilor Denis Lawrence Jr. with him at the polls and former Councilor Kerry Winterson doing radio advertisements for him. That almost sounds like an endorsement from The Machine with Winterson.
Lopes was a good councilor, elected three times council president. Pereira charged him with growing out of touch with his peninsula constituency in a very bitter race two years ago. But I think overall he did a good job. He certainly was someone who worked with Mayor Mitchell constructively, not like some councilors who seem so reflexively against him.
Still, I can’t help wishing that more clearly progressive voices like Boyer’s would make their way onto a council that seems a little more conservative than the city as a whole.
I’m not going to write much about the mayor’s race.
Mitchell, who overall has been a good though not perfect mayor, polled an astounding 2,544 votes to Richard Tyson Moutrie’s 357. Moultrie had issues with misrepresenting his resume when he ran four years ago, and his campaign has been nearly invisible this year.
Mitchell has $284,708.22 in his campaign fund. Moutrie has $75.58 and has not updated it since December 2022.
One more thing about the Tuesday election results.
A lot of time, in my opinion, has been wasted in recent months speculating about the low turnout in New Bedford elections.
The truth is the turnout in New Bedford’s municipal elections is not significantly different than in the immediate suburbs of Fairhaven and Dartmouth. And it’s true that the turnout for this preliminary was a dismal 6.1%. But that’s the way primary and preliminary elections are.
Unlike the city, the suburbs do not hold preliminary elections. But if you actually compare the voter turnout in New Bedford’s final elections to the voter turnouts in its two biggest suburb’s town elections, Dartmouth and Fairhaven, you will find remarkably similar numbers.
In the last New Bedford final election in 2021, the turnout was 10.8%. In the spring town election in Fairhaven this year the turnout was 13.8% and in Dartmouth it was 12.39%. And that was a New Bedford final election when there wasn’t even a mayor’s race.
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The fact is that people just don’t vote in local elections anymore. So let’s stop bashing the city of New Bedford and saying it’s an urban problem or a uniquely New Bedford problem. That sounds classist to me and maybe even worse. People don’t vote in local elections these days. Period.
They’ve stopped being interested for a lot of reasons, mostly to do with the way people consume or don’t consume local news and media.
Very few people read local newspapers these days. The business model of the papers doesn’t work anymore and they have very small staffs and deliver precious little news.
People also don’t watch local television or listen to local radio news as much as they used to because they have so many other options for their time, from social media to cable TV to satellite streaming services to satellite radio.
Many people just don’t participate in the news information system that much. They’re not required to by law and they have a lot of other media options for the first time in history. Many people these days live only in the world of pop entertainment, sports or their own avocations, whatever they are. That’s what society has become in the digital age. It’s not unique to New Bedford. It just is.
Watch out for Shane Burgo in the final election. He could be the man of the future.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at email@example.com.