In the New Bedford area, we all know Sheriff Tom Hodgson.
Love him or hate him, he’s been a big part of the public life of the South Coast for two-decades plus. His chain gangs and tough love; reduced-portion inmate meals and jail fees for room and board; his offers to have deputies work the streets and prisoners build a border wall. We feel we know who this guy is.
Hodgson’s certainly been well known for his right-wing political associations and his penchant for red-meat populist rhetoric, but he’s also well known in the quieter spaces for genial appearances at the local Portuguese feasts and with area media at charity events; the sheriff is almost ubiquitous in these parts. It’s not for nothing that in an election year, he was named Man of the Year by the Prince Henry Society, the region’s most prestigious Portuguese ethnic society.
But who is this Attleboro mayor, Paul Heroux, who is running against the longtime and controversial “high sheriff” of Bristol County? How is his name even pronounced? Is it “HERE-oh!” as in savior, as some have raised eyebrows at, or is it the more common local pronunciation of “HA-roo,” as in “Oo, oo! — I don’t know about that guy!”
We’re not quite sure — Maybe it’s “Here-OH!” with the emphasis on the second syllable. In that case, why isn’t the French spelling “eau” instead of “oux”? But I digress. We are, after all, in an American English-speaking country and people pronounce their names all sorts of ways.
However Heroux pronounces his name, and whoever Paul Heroux the man is, on paper he is a very successful elected official from the northern part of Bristol County. You know the northern part of the county, Attleboro, North Attleboro, Mansfield — the places you never go to unless you are on the way to Worcester.
So this guy from Attleboro has launched an understated yet seemingly most competitive campaign against Hodgson in 25 years.
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Heroux is a progressive’s dream candidate for sheriff or virtually any elective office for that matter.
A professional problem-solver with impressive credentials, he holds advanced degrees in important things like public administration, criminology and international relations and from prestigious schools (Harvard, Penn and the London School of Economics).
He’s a liberal but also a technocrat. As state rep, Heroux was a sponsor of a bill that earmarked $38 million for infrastructure grants, and another bill to protect transgendered citizens in public spaces, including in restrooms.
As mayor, Heroux repaired public school roofs that had leaked for 20 years, boosted education funding for his school department and established a special education stabilization fund for his city of about 50,000. Under his leadership, Attleboro gained control of a bankrupt golf course and turned it into a huge public park; Heroux instituted de-escalation training for his police department and made sure firefighters had two sets of protection gear; he made all city buildings 100% wind-powered; put solar panels above city parking lots; and banned single-use plastic bags and foam cups and tripled the wetlands protected in the community. He has lost just one unfair labor-practice suit with the municipal unions.
Those are some of the things Heroux’s community paper, The Attleboro Sun Chronicle, has reported on during his mayorship. The people of Attleboro would seem to like this guy so far.
In 2012, when he was a political unknown, the city’s voters ousted a freshman Republican state rep in Heroux’s favor and five years later they threw out a seven-term incumbent mayor for him.
The New Bedford Light provides in-depth analyses of the Nov. 8 elections and what lies ahead after voters made their voices heard.
The candidate boasts that he knocks on thousands of doors in each campaign and his numbers seem to indicate he’s doing something right. He won 78% of the vote in his initial Democratic state rep primary in 2012, and then 58% against a first-term GOP legislator from Attleboro in the final election. In his first re-election he garnered another healthy 61% of the vote against a different Republican with strong party backing.
By the time Heroux took on seven-term Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas in 2017, he had a reputation as a reformer. He topped Dumas in the primary election and then defeated him in the final with 54% of the vote. He’s since won two re-elections as mayor with 67% and 65% respectively.
Heroux is self-promotional and can be annoying that way. He’s tapped into the public exhaustion with longtime incumbents and himself uses traditional Republican Party talking points about self-imposed term limits. Calling himself a problem solver, he says he comes in, fixes a problem and then moves on. Moving on so far has meant running for a higher office.
Though Heroux has the backing of the most prominent left-wing activist groups on South Coast — The Coalition for Social Justice and Bristol County for Correctional Justice — he has nevertheless presented himself as a moderate, almost an administrative specialist, during the campaign.
Rather than biting at BCCJ-associated folks who demand that he close the antiquated Ash Street Jail and promise not to open another ICE detention facility for undocumented immigrants, he has promised neither, saying he wants to examine the pros and cons himself.
Heroux has centered his race around his contention that the Dartmouth House of Correction can be run more professionally, relying more on best criminal-justice practices. That’s something Hodgson has said he does already and in their one debate so far on WBSM-AM, the candidates went back-and-forth over who has better data to back up their claims.
A second theme in the sheriff’s race has centered around who is a professional politician and who isn’t, and who knows more about running a correctional facility and policing operation. No surprise that both Hodgson and Heroux claim that politically valuable mantle.
Heroux has been in elected office for 10 years (five as state rep and five as mayor), while Hodgson has been in an elected position for 35 (10 years as a New Bedford city councilor and almost 25 as sheriff. He’s been re-elected to four six-year terms after first being appointed by Gov. William Weld.)
Hodgson has worked as an assistant to former Sheriff David Nelson and as a police officer; Heroux has the criminology degree and has worked in professional and management positions in the Philadelphia and state of Massachusetts corrections systems.
Hodgson is a charismatic politician and Heroux perhaps not as much. But, he more than held his own on the AM radio debate. He came prepared with facts and figures, and combatively engaged the sheriff as good as he got from him.
An interesting sidelight is that as a high schooler, Heroux says he was not a good student. He spent most of his time pursuing a variety of martial arts and after high school worked part time for a while (including running his own martial arts business). He took courses at a variety of local colleges and when he had brought his grades up well enough, he was accepted to the University of Southern California. Why USC? That’s where the heart of martial arts culture is in the United States, he said.
As we head to the final stretch of this sheriff’s race, the polling is said to be close between the two candidates. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but with few competitive races on the ballot this year, the Bristol County sheriff’s race is where all the energy is between conservatives and progressives this cycle.
It’s going to be interesting to see what the people who turn out to vote think.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This column was modified on Thursday, Oct. 27, to correct the number of years Heroux has served in elected office and the percentage of votes he received in his second re-election for state representative. The column was also updated to reflect the number of unfair labor-practice suits he has lost.