Paul Heroux, the mayor of Attleboro, is working on the case. He’s in his dining room in his modest house with a whiteboard set up and he’s having at it with some markers, telling how he’ll do it right if he puts on the seven-pointed badge and gets in there, running the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office. You’d follow randomly selected jail inmates who completed certain rehabilitative programs, and those who had missed the opportunity, and then you would compare them, and the whole thing would run like some clinical drug trial or because you’d track inmates through the process and out the building and onto their next thing and at last you would actually know something about what’s going on inside the walls.
He’s got a couple of criminology textbooks open on the dining table to show how this would work. He wants to bring light into what he considers the darkness of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s administration of the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford, a brick lockup built when whaling ships were still sailing out of the city, and the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, opened a century later.
Something’s gone terribly wrong there, he says. Consider the number of suicides, Heroux says, the reports of brutality and official indifference to suffering tumbling out of one lawsuit after another. Heroux, 46, who has a wall full of framed diplomas from impressive institutions, four years’ experience in prison administration and 10 years in public office, says he can do it better. As he tells it, part of the answer is keeping tight books, keeping track of what the institutions are doing, then analyzing how you’re doing, then making the information public.
Heroux has had his eyes set on this aspect of running a correctional system for years. Not wearing the gun on his hip, not commanding troops of officers or an expanded fleet of vehicles, not being the lawman facing down bad guys, but focusing on rehabilitation, measuring how things work, and tinkering with the system if it doesn’t work. If Hodgson sometimes sounds like he’d like to try on a Wild West sheriff’s 10-gallon hat and clean up Dodge City, Heroux sounds like he’d reach for the green eye shades and straighten up the books. That, he says, is how to set up the best programs, how to keep inmates from committing more crime and coming back to the institution. That’s how to protect the community, he says.
He’s pressing the case. Not only running for the job, but in a sense also trying to persuade people of an idea about the job. He’s been making the argument for months now, topping two opponents in the Democratic primary and now facing a 25-year-incumbent whose approach is presented in three single-syllable words on his campaign website that are relatively easy to remember: “TOUGH ON CRIME.” Heroux’s site also offers one simple slogan: “IT’S TIME FOR CHANGE!”, but then summarizes his metrics approach to prison administration.
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“It’s a professional and modern approach to corrections,” says Heroux, who did statistical analysis in his four years combined at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, which runs the state prison system, and the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. “It’s not a liberal approach, it’s not a ‘country club’ approach.”
Some of the folks who have watched him in his five years as mayor of Attleboro say he brought the same analytical ways to running the city of some 43,000 people at the northwest edge of Bristol County.
Even people who are not known as fans of Mayor Heroux give him credit for improvements to a struggling post-industrial, post-suburban-mall downtown, due in large part to hiring an economic development director, a position that had been vacant for nine years. New restaurants and retail stores have come in. There’s a plan to raze a row of older retail spaces along Park Street, a plan for apartments in a former industrial building near City Hall, and, finally, the moldering old Briggs Hotel on South Main has been torn down, making way for a new five-story apartment building.
He’s held the position since 2018, and he calls it “the most rewarding job of my life.”
But he’s in the middle of his third two-year term, and he means to keep his word and serve no more than three terms, as he said when he first ran. As he also said when he first ran for state representative for the 2nd Bristol District in 2012, a position he left in the middle of his third term to serve as mayor.
Attleboro City Councilor Ty Waterman remembers meeting Heroux in 2012, when he was running for state representative, years before Waterman was on the council. They met at Morin’s Hometown Bar & Grille downtown, taking a booth near the window along South Main. As Waterman recalls it, Heroux ate nothing, drank nothing. Just talked. About his dreams. Back then, he had this “dream” — that was the word Waterman used — about measuring programs. The man aspired to measuring.
You might hear that and wonder: who does that?
The sort of person who might text you at 3 a.m. because he’d been giving a lot of thought to the point you made hours earlier, something you were trying to get his attention on, or something you didn’t agree on, and he’d thought about it. And in the middle of the night, says City Councilor Laura Dolan, would send you a text: “you’re probably right, I should look into it.”
Dolan was in a booth at Bandidos restaurant just a few blocks from Attleboro City Hall on a rainy night thinking about the sort of person she met 10 years ago outside a Stop & Shop in Attleboro when he was running for state representative, who seemed to share her values on environmental protection, basic human rights. The sort of person who has taken some getting used to for some in city government because of the contrast with the man he defeated to become mayor, Kevin Dumas, a gregarious, sharp-dressing fellow who held the job for 14 years.
That’s not Heroux, she says. People take him for a snob, she figures, or that he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, but that’s not it at all. It’s just who he is, the sort of guy who “reads these gigantic books on economics while other people are getting pizza and beer.” He’s just a different sort of guy.
“He’s not a bro-guy, back-slapping, beer-drinking,” Dolan says. “He’s like a Dad joke kind of guy … He’s a nerd.”
The sort of person who drives an electric Volvo day to day because it’s environmentally friendly and safe and about as exciting as term life insurance, but also, tucked away in his garage, has a Ducati motorcycle just because, he says, “it goes really fast and it looks awesome.”
The sort of person who, in the thick of a political campaign, just lost a state Department of Labor Relations ruling for violating state law in 2020 in a dispute with Attleboro firefighters over when COVID could be considered an on-duty injury. The agency held that Heroux was out of bounds in public remarks about the president of the firefighters union, and in private comments on Facebook to a firefighter’s wife reminding her that he had not fired her husband years ago because of an arrest.
Heroux is appealing the decision, but, upon reflection, acknowledges he could have kept quiet.
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“I don’t think I said anything wrong,” he says. “I was trying to explain that I give firefighters the benefit of the doubt. I was not trying to stick it to anyone is what I was trying to say (in his comments to a firefighters’ wife). Having said that, I wish I had never said anything at all because that would’ve just avoided the whole stupid thing.”
The sort of person who would not be found at the Boulevard Grille and Cigar Lounge in Pawtucket, a place full of dark leather chairs with a nice whiskey selection and, of course, cigars. Heroux has never smoked a cigar, and he likes to tell how he’s never taken a drink, reckoning that his heightened vigilance about consciousness-altering substances perhaps comes from being the son of two pharmacists. Heroux’s longtime Attleboro buddy, Sergio Furtado, picked the place to meet with a reporter to offer a glimpse of the person behind the technocratic presentation. It is the barest glimpse.
Furtado was settled into a leather chair lighting up a small cigar and saying straightaway that Heroux has a great sense of humor, but then getting nervous about saying much more. Not in public, not days away from an election. What might people think? Suffice to say practical jokes, guy stuff. More Oscar Madison than Oscar Wilde. Guys making fun of each other, guys sneaking into each other’s cars and changing the positions of the seats and mirrors. Once Furtado filled Heroux’s toilet with clear Jell-O. Leave the aftermath to the imagination.
The sort of person who, two years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, jets off to Saudi Arabia to teach English and try to figure out the place because he keeps wondering about the sort of place that produces 15 of the 19 hijackers. Years later, asked about what he found out, says he was struck by the certainty in the people he was meeting, a tendency to rigid convictions, no matter the facts.
“They were convinced that there are 52 U.S. states,” he says. “They didn’t understand the difference between a city and a state.”
The sort of person who as a 12-year-old boy wanders into Cooper’s tobacconist/magazine store on North Main and picks up Black Belt magazine and finds a door into another world, the world of martial arts. And goes all in for the next 12 years. That’s his life. He starts learning at a studio in town, then when he was old enough he’d drive to Boston to study with teachers up there. When he turned 18 he sought out better instructors, flying out to southern California. He pursued an array of styles, ranging into stick and knife fighting, and eventually became an instructor.
The adult Heroux — who still works out with martial art exercise bags in his barn — considers why, and figures “…it was just cool. The mastery of self was very appealing to someone growing up, trying to figure out who they are.”
The sort of person who loves animals. Who had a Japanese wolfhound named Mura whom he loved so much that when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer at nearly 11 years old in September, 2018 thought about what he could do for her after so many years as his best friend, always there by his side. He decided he’d take her on a cross-country road trip, first out to visit her breeder on Vancouver Island, then to Seattle, San Francisco, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park. Heroux’s Facebook postings about the trip were wildly popular. The story made the CBS Evening News.
“She was just happy to go anywhere we were going because she was going with me,” Heroux told CBS.
The sort of person who at one point in his life runs around accumulating master’s degrees: international relations at London School of Economics, criminology at the University of Pennsylvania (where he did all the course work for the doctorate but never did the dissertation), public administration at Harvard.
Heroux’s hard-core supporters, many of whom are professionals with their own advanced academic credentials, say that’s a part of what they want to see in a new sheriff.
Barbara Reideler, a retired lawyer from Dartmouth, is hoisting a red-white-and-blue Heroux campaign sign at a big intersection next to a shopping center in the north end of Fall River and gushing about the man she wants to be the new Bristol County sheriff.
“His qualifications just blow you away,” says Reideler. “Advanced degrees, mayor of Attleboro five years, state representative five years.”
She likes Heroux’s focus on inmate rehabilitation; she likes that he understands a House of Correction is not just for locking people up. She really likes that he’s not Thomas M. Hodgson.
She’s there with about 20 Heroux fans staking out four corners along President Avenue and Elsbree on a mild October late afternoon. They like their man, but they truly, deeply, maybe even madly, do not like Thomas M. Hodgson. They’ve seen him on TV with Trump at the White House; they’ve seen the lawsuits against him claiming all manner of abuses at his jails and the now-closed immigration detention center. They’ve seen more than enough.
“Too many people have suffered,” says Betty Ussach of Dartmouth, who is also a lawyer, and an activist with the pro-Heroux group Bristol County for Correctional Justice. She’s not impressed with Hodgson’s claims of keeping the community safe.
“He doesn’t keep the taxpayers safe,” she says, referring to the cost of many lawsuits that have been brought against Hodgson and the county during his 25 years in office. “He doesn’t keep the inmates safe.”
The Rev. James Hornsby, an Episcopal priest from Fall River, says he’s talked with 20 or so people who spent time in Bristol County custody, some of them parishioners, and doesn’t like what he heard.
One fellow he spoke with recently said that for weeks he wasn’t allowed a shower. He said he hasn’t heard very expansive answers when he’s asked former inmates if they were doing anything constructive.
On the positive side, he says Heroux is “extremely qualified. He’s been mayor, he knows how to run a large public corporation.”
Administrative experience, graduate degrees. Everything but name recognition, which Heroux readily acknowledges as his greatest challenge. Everything but the money to buy some of that recognition. Everything but more time.
By the end of September, the Heroux campaign reported $45,000 cash on hand, as compared with $217,000 for Hodgson. Heroux is getting some help from a national group founded by former New York Mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, Everytown for Gun Safety, which a few weeks ago launched a TV ad calling Hodgson “extreme and dangerous.”
Will it be enough against Hodgson, a charismatic figure who has no struggle with name recognition, at least not for a county sheriff? In a survey released early this year as part of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ “Know Your Sheriff” campaign, 53% of Bristol County residents surveyed could name Hodgson. The next highest was Franklin County at 33%.
It’s an uphill run, and Heroux knows it. He’s the sort of person who can look at numbers and look at himself.
“It’s a race I could win, and it’s a race I could lose,” he says. Either way, at the moment, as of late October, no big Election Night gathering is planned.
“I’m perfectly comfortable going home, going to sleep and finding out the results in the morning.”
Arthur Hirsch, a former staff reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is a freelance correspondent with The New Bedford Light. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.