I left a few messages on Mayor Jon Mitchell’s mobile phone this week.

The question I asked was this: “On the record, are you considering running for attorney general?”

Over a couple days, I never received any return phone calls.

What the radio silence means, of course, is that his honor does not want to confirm or deny what he’s thinking about doing. Or not doing.

But consider this: The mayor of New Bedford as of Nov. 30 had an impressive $221,126.68 in his campaign fund. He also raked in another $22,000-plus at a Dec. 16 fundraiser, so he has almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars on hand.

Ten years into his mayoralty, and without another mayoral election for another two full years, that’s a lot of dough for Mitchell to be raising if he doesn’t plan on running for something more expensive than a city mayoral campaign.

Also consider this: With incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito deciding to bow out of another re-election run, Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey now has as clear a path to a gubernatorial victory for the open seat as she’ll ever have. Expect her to announce her gubernatorial campaign just after the first of the year.

That would leave the AG’s office open, and that’s the kind of law enforcement job that Mitchell, with his background as an assistant U.S. attorney, has talked about since the very beginning of his political career.

Jon Mitchell will by no means have a clear path in the Democratic AG’s primary. 

First of all, it’s always more than an uphill battle for anyone from Southeastern Massachusetts to win a statewide office. Heck, we haven’t even elected a congressman from this region since Hastings Keith left office in 1973.

But Mitchell has some important factors breaking his way this year. This year the most talked-about potential candidates to succeed AG Healey from the Greater Boston area are not exactly household names. The best known is a guy with the odd moniker of Quentin Palfrey (an impressive Yankee name if I’ve ever heard one). 

Until recently Palfrey had been working as the acting general counsel in the Biden Commerce Department. He also ran as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor four years ago when Baker and Polito annihilated him and former Deval Patrick cabinet secretary Jay Gonzalez.

Not exactly an earth-shattering resume. Palfrey has only about $70,000 in his campaign fund although he began ramping up his fundraising shortly after the Baker/Polito announcement.

Who else from the state capital is considering a run? Don’t worry about any of them. You wouldn’t recognize any of their names even if I listed them. And keep in mind that Mitchell has probably been working the mayors of the state’s gateway cities for years. 

So don’t underestimate Mitchell as an AG candidate. When he defeated longtime state rep Tony Cabral and City Councilor Linda Morad in his first mayoral campaign 10 years ago, nobody in New Bedford knew who he was then either. He worked in Boston at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and had grown up in Dartmouth. He proceeded to defeat both of the city politicos going away.

Who could succeed Mitchell?

Which brings me to the real topic of this column: The ongoing race to be the next president of the City Council. 

Why does anyone but a handful of political junkies in the corridors of City Hall care at all about who will be the next council president? Because if Jon Mitchell leaves, the next council president could quickly become mayor of New Bedford, probably within a year. And that person could then be mayor for most of the next two years, or until the 2023 municipal election finally comes round.

According to the city charter, if a vacancy occurs in the mayor’s office in the first year of a mayorship, the city holds a special election. If a vacancy occurs in the second year, the City Council votes among its members for an acting mayor. If the councilors can’t agree on a candidate, the incumbent council president becomes acting mayor until the next election. 

(No one actually knows what happens if there’s a vacancy in the third and fourth year of a mayorship because this is the first four-year mayoral term in New Bedford’s history. We’re about to enter the third year of Mitchell’s four-year term, but the city charter appears to be silent on what happens.)

Ian Abreu
Brian Gomes

So the word around City Hall is that incumbent at-large councilors Ian Abreu and Brian Gomes are locked in a heated battle to become the next council president, with both well aware of the possibility that an accidental mayorship is looming on the horizon.

Abreu, a third-term councilor, has made no secret of the fact he would like to be council president, if not mayor. He’s been courting the votes of fellow councilors since he lost out on the presidency two years ago in a behind-the-scenes deal that is said to have been engineered by councilors Linda Morad and Joe Lopes.

And Brian Gomes? Gomes, who was first elected to the council in 1991, has himself wanted to be mayor for at least two decades. He would probably move heaven and earth to get to the corner office by way of a vacancy in the job. Having been trounced 2 to 1 in his only full-blown mayoral race against the late Fred Kalisz in 2001, he must know that it would be an uphill battle for him to be elected in any two-person race. 

Even so, Gomes does an annual dance every two years letting it out that he just might run for mayor again. It seems like a way of keeping his name in the news for good or bad.

If you want to know what kind of mayor Gomes or Abreu might actually be, a good place to start is by examining who gives money to their campaigns.

Gomes has never raised much money as a candidate, throughout his three decades on the council. But over the last two years when his seat seemed in danger, a group of city players came to his rescue with a healthy infusion of cash. The fear was that he might be in trouble in the 2019 election.

Gomes in 2018 had been fired by Southcoast Health from his longtime position as an operating room technician after the hospital group’s investigator found evidence of “threatening, disruptive, harassing and intimidating behavior” in the wake of accusations of sexual harrassment and sex discrimination. Astonishingly, in 2019, Gomes then toyed with the idea of running for mayor. But the fears his council seat might be in jeopardy really ramped up when in the preliminary election he filed to run for both mayor and the council at the same time. He has maintained he meant to withdraw from the mayor’s race but missed the deadline.

Who are the contributors who have been steering money to Gomes’ campaign since 2019? 

Why it was the city’s old-fashioned political machine — the Biff MacLean, John Saunders crowd. Since October of 2019 and then again this past fall, Saunders has given Gomes contributions of $100, $100, $300, and $100, according to state Office of Campaign and Political Finance reports. MacLean has given $200 in both years. 

Assorted other members of the Saunders clan and friends have also kicked in. As has the New Bedford Police Union with $500. Gomes is a longtime champion of the department and has been criticized by some for chairing a police Use of Force commission whose mission avoided making changes like instituting a civilian review board or eliminating qualified immunity that protects officers from civil lawsuits. 

So that’s who’s interested in Gomes getting the job. 

The councilor has only a total of $3,000 in his campaign kitty but that’s enough, along with his name recognition, to keep him in a council seat, where he can bargain for the presidency and help push any matters the Saunders and MacLeans are interested in.

For the record, Gomes has adamantly denied guilt in the hospital case and has sued Southcoast Health for wrongful termination. His case was dismissed but is currently in appeals court.

And Ian Abreu? Abreu has raised money the past two election cycles with a furor not seen in some time on the council and certainly not equaled by any of the run-of-the-mill councilors. Off a spate of fundraisers just in the last couple years, Abreu is sitting on almost $41,000. That’s a lot of money for a New Bedford at-large council race, and way more than ever would be needed.

Abreu’s contributors cover the range of virtually anyone who might want to do business with the city. And though both the police, firefighters and construction unions are regularly on his lists, it is the business community that contributes most heavily, with not a few giving in $500 and $1,000 increments.

Abreu chairs the council’s Cannabis Regulation and Host Community Agreements committee and has gotten attention for accepting contributions from those wanting to do marijuana business in the city.

Among some of his noteworthy contributors are real estate developers, restaurant owners and everyday locally owned businesses. Folks who appear on his contribution lists with three and four-figure contributions include Ryan DeMelo, co-owner of the Endzone Pub; the Construction and General Laborers Council; Andrea Cabral of Ascend Wellness, a cannabis company; Charles and Michael Quinn of Standard Marine Outfitters; Michael Panagakos of Panagakos Development and Timothy Mello and Erik Orman of Tempest Fisheries.  

Abreu is an ambitious guy. A one-time Republican, he has since switched to Democrat as his career in politics has blossomed. He works hard, returns phone calls and is seen as a moderate voice on the council and the body’s current preeminent master of constituent services.

Before he was upset in his Ward 6 re-election race, Councilor Joe Lopes — who also had never made any secret that he would like to be mayor — was seen as the councilor who had the best resume to do the job should Mitchell leave. That’s all changed now, however. Losing a re-election race in your home ward to a 24-year-old first-time candidate is hardly a launching pad for a mayoral campaign.

So Lopes is gone and Abreu and Gomes seem to have their eyes on a non-elective route to the corner office. If one of them should get the job, they would be in a much stronger position to run a campaign for the full-time slot. Whether they could get there is another question. An open mayoral seat would almost certainly bring out a few candidates not currently in office. Maybe from the business or legal communities, or former elected officials.

As for the individual councilors, some of them seem to think their vote for the council president is  a private matter. There is an attitude among some that they don’t owe any public explanation to the voters who elected them about who they’re backing to lead the council, even though this year it’s a person who could well become the next mayor of New Bedford without an election. 

Councilors Morad, Gomes, Brad Markey, Scott Lima, and Hugh Dunn did not return phone calls inquiring about who they are supporting, seeming to prefer to do their business in private. Abreu’s supporters were more likely to be up front with Abreu himself and Councilors Naomi Carney and Maria Giesta outlining their reasons for their support. Carney said she promised Abreu her backing two years ago, and she’s a person of her word. Giesta noted Abreu has been the No. 1 vote-getter on the council two cycles in a row.

Councilors-elect Ryan Pereira and Shane Burgo both maintained they have not yet made up their minds but Pereira said Abreu is the only one who has asked him. Burgo said he has three criteria he’s looking at: whether the councilor can work well with department heads; whether he or she can serve as a strong conduit between the mayor’s office and the council; and whether he or she can build coalitions among their constituents, colleagues and the mayor’s office. 

Incumbent Councilor Derek Baptiste also said he has not made up his mind and said he will decide based on who he thinks could best do the job.

So that’s the political news from William Street as we close out the old year. Old-time politics is alive and well in City Hall. The only difference is that whatever behind-the-scenes shenanigans they are up to could have a much bigger effect than usual this year.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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