It was cold Tuesday morning, for the campaign workers standing on Mt. Vernon Street outside the two polling stations at Holy Name Parish Center.
But 77-year-old Maria Bettencourt was there with a scarf around her head, and shielding her face from the wind by way of a red-and-white campaign sign for Ward 3 council candidate Shawn Oliver.
Oliver, she told me, is her grandson. She looked so cold that my heart went out to her. I was cold myself and asked if she was OK and she nodded fine.
She seemed more than happy to do her part for her grandson, though perhaps not so anxious to talk to a member of the press. I asked if she would like coffee and she said she was all set.
Shawn Oliver, a corrections officer at the state prison in Walpole, eventually topped the six other candidates running on the preliminary election ballot that same night. Good job, grandma! During the day Oliver was traveling around the ward, checking the turnout numbers and holding signs himself.
More talkative outside the Holy Name polls Tuesday morning was Cindy Roy, a well-known education activist, familiar to many in the city from her work on the Coalition to Save Our Schools.
Roy was also bundled up against the weather in a bright pink-quilted jacket and hood. She held a sign for Carmen Amaral, a fellow educator who, interestingly enough, during the daytime polling hours was holding down her job at Old Colony Regional Voc-Tech in Rochester. Amaral joined the campaign’s last-minute push later in the day and she finished a strong second to Oliver in the balloting.
Ms. Roy more than held her own with a voter who crossed the street to ask the sign-holders what they thought of the recent national election. I was afraid things could go south quickly, given the divisive climate in the country, but Roy told him she was there supporting her Ward 3 candidate, telling me later she thought he was just asking who she voted for.
Oliver’s signs were all over the ward prior to Tuesday’s voting and he had said he was working both the door knobs and social media hard. Amaral also talked about her and her team’s door-knocking. She had a group of dedicated volunteers strategizing for months. Both candidates grew up in the city in the 1980s and ‘90s. Four years apart — Oliver is 39 and Amaral 43 — they are the latest of a new generation of city candidates that may have started with now incumbents Shane Burgo and Ryan Pereira last year.
Oliver and Amaral will now face off in a Feb. 28 special final election that looks like it could bring as much attention to Ward 3 as has anything in years. In a way, having its own election apart from the rest of the city has been an opportunity to focus on the middle- and low-income neighborhoods of this area located almost smack in the middle of the city — the neighborhoods that abut Hathaway Road, the old Weld Square triple-deckers and the upper waterfront district. Though many of us drive through mid-New Bedford every day, far fewer of us live there.
The voter turnout for the Ward 3 preliminary special election Tuesday was, of course, dismal. It was an out-of-the-ordinary election date in the dead of winter.
The voter turnouts in the few times that New Bedford has held a preliminary election in recent years, seem to be trending downward.
In a March 13, 2017, special preliminary election won by Hugh Dunn, the turnout was 7.4%. So in six years, that’s a 1 percent drop in voter participation. Not a big drop but not in any way a good turnout either.
It’s not a perfect comparison, but in an April 8, 2008, special final election won by Kathy Dehner, the turnout was a little better at 14.5%. There was no special preliminary election that year because there were only two candidates running. In that sense, voter participation has been cut in half in 15 years.
The Ward 3 preliminary results must have been a hard pill for third-place finisher Bob Bromley to swallow. The financial consultant for the Rhode Island state Senate and long-time former official with the Fort Taber military museum, finished a strong third with 19% of the vote to Amaral’s 23% and Oliver’s 28%.
I’m giving you voting percentages here but we are talking about Oliver finishing 33 votes ahead of Amaral and Amaral finishing 27 votes ahead of Bromley. Just 686 total people who voted will have a big impact on the city the next year. Thirty-odd votes is not a lot to make up in just a month.
It was interesting that a couple candidates who were thought by some of the pundits to be serious contenders — Jacob Ventura and Kathy Dehner — finished fourth and fifth, respectively, with 12% and 8% of the votes.
On this topic, candidate John Robinson may have put it best during the campaign: “I think a lot of the people aren’t so much interested in doing the job as being the job,” he said. “They want to be seen as a city councilor.”
From my perspective, Oliver and Amaral were the two most progressive candidates in the race.
Oliver came out for supporting long-time activist Carol Pimentel’s appointment to the Voc-Tech board, despite a narrow vote by the City Council rejecting her. That’s a critical issue for those who would like to see more Latino and disabled students admitted to the career school. He also spoke on behalf of the homeless and disabled.
Amaral, along with sixth-place finisher Bob Cabral, said that voters in the ward had expressed an interest to her in the city doing a good job taking care of the homeless. She also emphasized the need to build consensus, respecting the different parties that make up the city’s stakeholders.
There was a lot of talk in the preliminary election about the importance of constituent services. Certainly the voters have expressed an interest in how to better obtain information about what’s going on in the city and getting things done. But there are two sides of the constituent services issue, and an unspoken side is often the issue of whether the department heads are doing favors for councilor supporters, as opposed to for the citizens with no one to speak for them. Questions about the council’s role vs. the mayor’s role in directing department heads are legitimate ones.
It will be interesting to see what Amaral and Oliver have to say about this in the final election.
The great thing about these ward races, of course, is that in the final election, you get a one-on-one debate between two individuals. It may not even be that they have different positions on the issues so much as different leadership styles, different priorities.
Both Oliver and Amaral have demonstrated they have the ability to convince significant numbers of voters that they are the best choice for the ward. They will have an even more in-depth opportunity to do that in the next month before the Feb. 28 final election.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.