Jon Mitchell, almost midway through the first four-year mayoral term in the city’s history, can sit securely in his third-floor City Hall office this summer and not have to worry about campaigning for re-election.

But Mitchell may still be the main focus of the 2021 New Bedford municipal election. That’s because in many ways, a highly contested ward race and a battle for an open City Council seat, could be referendums on his time in office. And the results could have a big effect on his last two years as mayor — if he stays in New Bedford.

A month into the 2021 municipal election’s campaign filing period, the William Street political world is abuzz over a Ward 6 race that would normally be a low-key affair. But this year, with no mayor’s race and an open at-large race that has drawn few well-known challengers, Ward 6 has become the race to watch. Perhaps it is even a proxy battle for the mayor’s race with a councilor and supporter of the mayor pitted against a challenger with ties to some who don’t like the way Mitchell is running the city.

In Election Commission Chairman Manny DeBrito’s office, a ward map of the city hangs on the wall. Photo by Jack Spillane

“The Ward 6 race is the big one,” said outgoing Councilor-at-large Debora Coelho, who wants to know what the heck is going on down in the South End.

City Council President and Ward 6 Councilor Joe Lopes is facing a well-financed, aggressive challenge in the peninsula ward from 24-year-old Ryan Pereira. Pereira, the next-gener of a family that owns Precision Windows and other businesses, has some $10,000 in his campaign fund — an almost unheard-of amount in a New Bedford ward race.

Pereira has already spent thousands on advertising and professional videos. He’s advertised heavily in the first part of the year on WBSM-AM, the area’s political talk radio station.

Ryan Pereira

No one seems to want to opine for the record about why Pereira is running against a six-term incumbent, who up until this year appeared to be popular, and effective enough as a councilor to be elected council president four times — the last two times in a row (which required a two-thirds vote for the re-elect). There are whispers, however, that this is all about bad blood with Lopes from some of the folks who are backing Pereira. For his part, Pereira is emphasizing constituent services as one of his calling cards, and some contend Lopes is not great at returning phone calls.

Former City Councilor John Saunders, long a power broker in New Bedford politics, has been down on Lopes for some time. Some councilors in 2012 accused Lopes of flip-flopping on a promise to back a 44 percent City Council pay raise engineered by Saunders and other councilors.

Chris McCarthy, one of the morning talk-show jocks at WBSM, wonders why Pereira did not just run for the open at-large seat created by the departure of long-term Councilor Coelho. Or why Lopes himself would not just move over to the at-large seat and probably win easily, letting Pereira take the ward seat. Perennial candidate Carlos Felix, the operator of the crime watch news site, New Bedford Live, has also taken out papers in the ward race.

“This is a year when people are willing to pass up on an incredible opportunity,” McCarthy said, referring to the vacant at-large position. “It’s just amazing to me that someone would take on an incumbent city councilor in a ward race when they could put in just as much effort and actually win an open seat on the City Council at-large.”

Steppingstone to the mayor’s office?

In the background of it all, is the speculation about the possible departure of the nine-year incumbent Mitchell. The long-term mayor has made no secret of the fact that he is ambitious and open to opportunities to move up, either in Washington, D.C., or Boston. But six months into President Biden’s term, it appears no offers have come his way.

Councilor Joe Lopes

Lopes, as council president, would automatically become interim mayor should Mitchell leave the job this year. If the mayor leaves next year, Lopes would have to convince two-thirds of the council to vote for him to be president a third consecutive time. Ironically, Saunders is the last one who pulled off that feat.

Whether Mitchell leaves or not, Lopes is one of a minority on the council who ends up in the mayor’s camp more often than not. His defeat and Coelho’s departure could leave Mitchell — the city’s longest-serving mayor since Jack Markey 40 years ago — as a weakened chief executive in the final two years of his four-year term.

“The big unknown is: ‘Does Mayor Mitchell play a role in who’s going to get on the council this year?’” said McCarthy.

The pundit maintains he does not know what Pereira’s dispute with Lopes is about. But it’s no secret that the Ward 6 owners of waterfront residential properties were concerned two years ago about a water park on the public East Beach and the way it was permitted, with some charging the city did not follow its own procedures.

Lopes, though he has raised little money — there is only $2,800 in his campaign fund — quickly made it down to City Hall when the filing period began in early May and placed his name first on the list of those running. He has also begun to place campaign signs, something that usually doesn’t begin until later in the election season.

Newcomer has powerful support

Candidate Pereira is backed by some movers and shakers in the ward.

“Ryan Pereira is a man on the move,” McCarthy said. “He certainly has put together a blue-ribbon committee of supporters,” he noted. The backers include former City Councilor Victor Pinheiro, one of the most respected Portuguese-American leaders in the city; and Celine Saraiva, head of the Clark’s Point Neighborhood Association.

“I think public safety concerns will play a big role in the election.”

Chris McCarthy, WBSM talk radio host

Former Ward 5 Councilor Jane Gonsalves said Lopes has run up against a challenger this year from a well-known family who is working hard. It’s difficult to know how much danger he may be in, she said, since it’s been a long time since he had a serious opponent.

“Any time someone’s been in office a long time, they’re going to make some enemies,” she said.

The last serious opponent Lopes had was now-Councilor-at-large Ian Abreu in 2011. Since losing to Lopes in the ward race, Abreu has become a popular at-large councilor, topping the ballot two years ago over both councilors Linda Morad and Brian Gomes, who have taken turns winning the top spot in recent years.

Abreu, also a Ward 6 resident, says he is staying out of the competition between Lopes and Pereira. But he’s looking like a man who wants to be mayor himself, having become the city’s most active political fundraiser over the past year with almost $36,000 in his campaign fund.

Unions likely to be influential

McCarthy and Gonsalves both said they expect the police and fire unions to play a big role in this election. Pereira has tied himself tightly to union workers, expressing support for the police and firefighters, as well as steel workers in the South End. 

The mayor has unsuccessfully tried to convince the City Council to move both the police and fire unions, against their will, to a more affordable health-care plan for the city. The police union has also opposed his planned elimination of desk jobs and the downtown police station; the firefighters’ local has opposed the elimination of a 24/7 engine company, along with the replacement of firefighters with EMTs as the principal responders to most medical calls. They’ve also raised issues about what they say is the city’s inadequate equipment.

Mayor Jon Mitchell

Gonsalves noted the role that unions played in defeating four-term incumbent, the late Mayor Fred Kalisz in 2005. “It’s not unusual for the unions to run against an incumbent once they don’t get what they want in contract negotiations,” she said.

McCarthy, who has supported the public safety unions on his talk show, said the council challengers are going to have to state their positions on union issues. “I think public safety concerns will play a big role in the election,” he said.

Though the Police Department has been criticized in the past year — with one study charging that some officers unfairly profile minorities as gang members and stop far more Black and Latino youths than whites — McCarthy pointed out another incident: When police were faced with an individual who had just shot a man to death and who had pointed a gun at officers, they arrested the alleged perpetrator without violence, he said. “It was a major incident that shows just how good the police are.”

Not everyone agrees with McCarthy about the police, however, especially in the city’s communities of color.

Buddy Andrade, whose Gomes School neighborhood group is the only association that has staged candidates’ nights in the last few election cycles, said he believes this election will be business as usual, meaning the old insiders will dominate. He expressed bitter disappointment at Mitchell’s police use-of-force commission, of which he was a member. The fact that the mayor is not running has taken some of the interest in this election away, he said.

“The main person I’d like to see removed is the mayor, and he’s not running,” he said.

Andrade also criticized Councilor Brian Gomes, whom Mitchell appointed to chair the commission, for not allowing public comment, especially from the youth who had led the 2020 Blacks Lives Matter protests in the city.

“Those kids did a good job representing our community,” Andrade said, calling it “disrespectful” for the commission not to engage with them.

Andrade, a Cape Verdean-American said he would not support Gomes, also a member of the city’s Cape Verdean community, for re-election this year, as he has in the past. He charged that Gomes is part of a systematic coverup of the police shooting death of 15-year-old Malcolm Gracia in 2012.

“Brian Gomes was head of the Public Safety Committee. He knew a cover-up was being put together,” Andrade said.

Small donors remain anonymous

How much of Pereira’s campaign is generated by Lopes’ and Mitchell’s opponents and how much of it is driven simply by his own ambitions is not clear. In his May filing with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Pereira listed an impressive $2,295 in “aggregated unitemized receipts.” That means he did not have to reveal the identities of the contributors because the contributions were less than $50 apiece.

McCarthy said the candidate, at least so far, has been running a “very positive” campaign.

“Whatever other people’s motivations are, Ryan Pereira is running a very strong campaign and seems to be sticking to his own agenda — at least at the moment,” he said.

MORE FROM JACK SPILLANE

Sign up for free

Our free newsletter will drop into your inbox weekday mornings, giving you all the highlights of our in-depth news stories and community arts and culture coverage.

SUPPORT OUR WORK TODAY

As an independent, nonprofit news outlet we are reliant on reader support to help fund the kind of in-depth journalism that keeps the public informed and holds the powerful accountable. Thank you for your support.