Would-be governors come to New Bedford

Would-be governors come to New Bedford

Wake up, wake up, you political types, there are evidently great things to be accomplished if you're willing to try.

Just when you might have thought that politics was dead in New Bedford, that nobody votes anymore and that they certainly aren't interested in anything as Boston-centered as a governor's race, along comes the Democratic City Committee.

You remember the Democrats in New Bedford, they used to be a big deal. One of their state senators was the majority leader and another one was the head of that powerful Ways and Means committee.

Why, their national committeewoman even ran presidential campaigns in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But that was then and this is now.

In recent years there have been wards in New Bedford where the city committee has had a hard time attracting enough people to the caucus for the state convention. Democratic politics, if it wasn't dead in the city, was on a breathing machine named Scott Lang. But enter Dana Rebeiro, Lisa Lemieux and Ralf Rho, and all of a sudden all five Democratic gubernatorial candidates are in New Bedford on a Saturday morning. Aided by the ever-able MarDee Xifaras, the new blood in the city committee somehow convinced both the Democratic frontrunners and the also-rans who want to be governor to all make their way to the Zeiterion theatre.

For two hours the candidates expounded on their future visions of Massachusetts, making sure to say all the right things about commuter rail and wind turbines and public education.

So there was Martha Coakley talking about the unique flavor of New Bedford: "Where else in the world do you hold a Moby-Dick Marathon?" she exclaimed. And there was Steve Grossman talking about all the money his School Building Authority has directed to cities and towns, including to the Christopher Columbus school in New Bedford. Come to think of it, where is that Christopher Columbus school in New Bedford, Steve? I'm not familiar with it, unless you mean the Medford part of New Bedford.

Kidding aside the candidates all did well. There wasn't a John Silber in the bunch, no one you would lose any sleep over if they became governor.

For those who don't know the non-household names who are running, on stage with Coakley and Grossman were medical company executive Joe Avellone; Don Berwick, an Obama administration health care reformer, and Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for Homeland Security, also for Obama.

The five are all solid progressives — each supported rail transportation, alternative energy, and reform of health care and public education. They opposed prison for non-violent drug crimes and they all want to raise the minimum wage.

The only classic liberal was Berwick, who called on Democrats to reignite Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty without apologizing. He nicely echoed old-time New Deal values when he talked about growing up in a small town where everyone took care of each other.

Avellone played to those who believe it takes a business type to create jobs, saying half a dozen times that he's the only candidate who's created jobs in a private company.

Juliette Kayyem mentioned that she's a non-politician mother of three a bunch of times, perhaps her subtle observation that Coakley is a professional prosecutor and not a mother.

Kayyem talked about nuts-and-bolts planning but didn't ignite any hand pounding or thigh-slapping.

Grossman did get the folks going a bit. He played to the labor crowd, calling for an end to "teacher-bashing" as Mayor Mitchell, who has been at war with the teacher's union in his school reform efforts, sat a few feet away in the front row.

Grossman was also the only candidate who went on the attack, charging that Coakley has not always supported in-state tuition and drivers license for undocumented immigrants.

Way ahead in the polls, Coakley didn't take Grossman's bait — and to be fair, the forum was highly scripted, with questions submitted in advance and controlled by the moderators.

Still, 150 people interrupted a sunny Saturday to listen to the would-be governors, and Mitchell (accompanied by his 12-year-old daughter, Grace) made it clear that Gateway Cities like New Bedford need a Democratic governor to keep state investment flowing.

"This is an important election," he said. "We need a Democrat to succeed Gov. Patrick."

Grace, who dutifully sat through the five candidates repeating each other, was rewarded by her old man with lunch at Freestone's, I'm told.

But Mitchell and the candidates notwithstanding, the day really belonged to Rebeiro, Lemieux and Rho. They brought the gubernatorial campaign to New Bedford. And they made sure that whoever the Democrats nominate for governor, he or she won't be someone who's likely to ignore SouthCoast.

By Jack Spillane | Standard-Times

Elections can be very close and the results can make all the difference

In another place at another time, there was once a great city election.

Unlike in New Bedford, the mayor in Portsmouth, N.H., is the city councilor who receives the most votes.

There are nine at-large council seats and whoever wins the most votes is mayor.

In 1997, there was a great battle between a scrappy little woman named Evelyn Sirrell and a genial Main Street guy named Alex Hanson.

Sirrell worked by day as a meter maid and was the moving force behind the local taxpayers group. Evelyn was an acquired taste: Though she was a big-hearted woman she was also famous for railing against big-spenders and liberals. Alex was more your small-business, compromise-behind-the-scenes guy.

They both had deep roots in the community and a genial enough relationship.

Nearly everyone, however, thought Alex would beat Evelyn. He was simply the more polished candidate, much more the mayor from central-casting.

But on election night as the ballots came in, everyone at City Hall was surprised as Evelyn stayed close to Alex in the counting. When Evelyn went home for the night she was behind by four votes.

But when she woke up the next morning, she learned that when the final ballots were tallied, she had been elected mayor by one vote.

Some of the local wags flapped that Alex would certainly defeat Evelyn on the recount, they simply couldn't imagine that the meter maid could become mayor.

The political pundits, however, were wrong.

Sirrell actually gained six more votes on the recount and won the election by a robust seven votes.

Sirrell went on to serve eight years as Portsmouth mayor and she never suffered a close election again.

And much to the surprise of many, she ended up being liberal enough to lead a successful effort to build a new library in Portsmouth. She also led a statewide effort to repeal New Hampshire's state property tax and a dogged but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from closure.

When Evelyn Sirrell died in 2009, she was both beloved and recognized as one of the most respected mayors in Portsmouth's last 25 years.

You didn't, of course, have to be in Portsmouth, N.H., in 1997 to see that elections can be very close and that the results can make all the difference in a city's history.

In the New Bedford preliminary election on Oct. 8, financial adviser Leo Choquette grabbed the last of 10 spots available to compete for five at-large council seats in the final election.

He grabbed that spot by one vote over Ralf Rho, a promising first-time candidate who works in Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan's office.

Rho decided not to contest the results with a recount and Choquette has gone on to run one of the more visible campaigns of the council challengers.

With no mayor's race this year, New Bedford's election season has been a mostly out-of-sight, out-of-mind affair. But there are still important races to be decided.

With the city school system in crisis and the state already taking over one elementary school, there is an open School Committee seat.

There's also an open at-large seat and even with former Councilor Linda Morad likely to grab that spot, incumbent Councilor John Saunders' sixth-place finish in the preliminary election means there's a chance of an upset. That upset could greatly change the direction of New Bedford government in the next two years as Saunders — whether you love him, hate him or are indifferent — is one of the most influential, if not the most influential, of councilors.

And it doesn't end with the at-large race in the high stakes in this 2013 New Bedford election.

In Ward 5, the retirement of longtime Councilor Jane Gonsalves means there is an open seat in the affluent ward that many believe is the most influential section of the city. Certainly more movers and shakers in New Bedford live in Ward 5 than anyplace else.

So think of the meter maid from Portsmouth, that unlikely mayor, and what happened when the voters came out and elected her by one vote, and ultimately seven votes on the recount.

And think of how close Ralf Rho came to being on the final ballot this year in New Bedford.

And think of the big issues at stake as New Bedford continues to kick-start its economy and rebuild its school system.

Get out and vote on Tuesday. Your vote really could make a big difference.

By Jack Spillane | Standard-Times

Letter: Voters must turn attention to issues

On behalf of my family, my friends and the volunteers who tirelessly worked to promote our message of stronger community and a better New Bedford, I express my sincere gratitude to all residents of our great city who supported our candidacy for councilor-at-large. It was certainly an honor and a privilege to be part of the democratic process, and to stand with all the candidates who have put their name on the ballot.

I came from a very humble beginning, building a better life for myself, my family and to become a part of the New Bedford community. Our campaign was built upon a straightforward approach of leadership, accountability, empowerment, transparency, and the belief that our elected officials have a responsibility to deliver the resources and services the taxpayers deserve in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Although I am new to the political landscape, I have made many great friends and loyal supporters on the campaign trail. We lost the elections by one vote, yet we are all winners. I believe that we all have a duty to remain involved to improve our quality of life as a community. We will continue to be committed to that cause and together we will build a New Bedford that works for everyone.

I will not be requesting a recount of Tuesday night's election results. Instead of spending on the cost of a recount, I believe that our tax dollars should be allocated to more important issues we have raised in our campaign, like finding solutions to our concerns for public safety, addressing our drastic unemployment record, the rampant drug epidemic, poor school performance and youth delinquency.

It is important now more than ever, for voters to remain focused on the candidates and their proposed solutions to those issues we face. I accept the results, and wish each and every candidate the best of luck in the general election.

By Ralf S. Rho – New Bedford, Massachusetts

Rho won't seek recount after losing ballot spot by one vote

NEW BEDFORD — Defeated At-Large City Council candidate Ralf Rho said Thursday he will not seek a recount in the race that saw him miss out on the final slot on the Nov. 5 ballot by one vote.

Leo Choquette finished ahead of Rho, 957-956, grabbing the 10th of 10 positions for the final election.

In a letter to The Standard-Times, Rho, a first-time candidate, wrote that he would not challenge the preliminary election results because "tax dollars should be allocated to more important issues we have raised in our campaign."

Reached Thursday night, Rho said it was a waste of money to hold a recount as the city continues to struggle with issues such as possibly laying off firefighters if the Fire Department fails to receive more federal grant money.

Rho added that it would be "egotistical" of him to ask for a recount, saying "This campaign was never about me."

Asked if he would run for office again, Rho said he is focused on trying to "be a New Bedford resident the best I could."

Asked if that meant he was ruling out a future run, Rho, laughing, said "Being a resident means being a resident."

Rho vigorously campaigned through social media and championed increased transparency and use of technology in government.

Choquette could not be reached for comment Thursday but said Tuesday night that it would be "only fair" to agree to a recount had Rho suggested one.

By Matt Camara | Standard-Times


Political newcomer Ralf Rho hopes to leverage technology, positive message to win at-large council seat

Ralf S. Rho | City Council Candidate

Ralf S. Rho | City Council Candidate

NEW BEDFORD — At-Large City Council candidate Ralf Rho said he wants to see more transparency, wants to empower neighborhoods and will oppose established political groups if they work against residents.

"I'm not in any machine. I am a pedestrian," said Rho, 31, who works for Fall River Mayor William Flanagan as an analyst for that city's neighborhood outreach office.

Rho — a Haitian immigrant who landed in Dorchester at age 16 — has lived in New Bedford since 2001 and decided this election was the right time to throw his hat into the ring for an at-large seat, he said, because he was tired of being on the "sidelines."

Supervisors lauded Rho's performance at his analyst position and called him a model employee.

"Right away I was impressed," Flanagan said of his first meeting with Rho, then an unpaid intern in his office. "He came in early; he stayed late."

Flanagan also pointed to Rho's tech savvy — he returns Twitter messages to reporters in seconds, phone calls in hours — as a strength.

Fall River Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator Perry Long, Rho's immediate supervisor, pointed out that Rho was instrumental in obtaining and managing a $500,000 grant to be shared among several Southeastern Massachusetts communities to deal with distressed properties.

Rho lives in Ward 4 at The Regency tower downtown with his wife Wedline and their two children.

City neighborhood liaison John Lobo said Rho has not participated in the ward's neighborhood associations.

"He hasn't been to any of the (meetings) I went to, and I go to most of them," Lobo said.

Asked about his relationship to the neighborhood associations, Rho said "I look forward to meeting everyone" and that they were "on his schedule."

"I don't look at wards in particular, I'm looking at at-large," Rho said, adding that he has met with the Coalition for Social Justice and Bus Riders United in addition to frequent door-to-door outings to meet residents. "Going door to door is equivalent to going to a neighborhood meeting."

Many of Rho's policy stances lack specificity, with the candidate answering questions related to medical marijuana, the Fire Department's strapped budget and whether or not a casino should sprout up in the downtown with pledges to do what's right for residents and to "keep an open mind."

A plan on Rho's website offers his vision for New Bedford and does offer specific suggestions such as advocating for an increased number of available bus routes.

His six-point plan offers generalized statements about the need to protect seniors and grow the small business community.

Rho opposes what he calls the lack of transparency surrounding the council's decision last year to vote itself a 44 percent pay raise. If elected, he said he would donate the pay increase to a youth charity, although he declined to say which one calling it a "tough choice."

"I believe in technology; I believe in transparency. Our government should improve in that area," Rho said. "Anything that hinders progress should be done away with."

By Matt Camara | Standard-Times

Rho Calls for Citizen input at every City Council Meeting

NEW BEDFORD, MA – There is nothing more important to any community process, than public input. Our democratic system of government depends on allowing everyone’s voice to be heard, and once elected to the City Council; Ralf Rho plans to introduce citizen input time to each and every City Council meeting.

Ralf Rho, a first time Candidate for City Councillor-at-Large entered the race for many reasons, but at its very core, he believes New Bedford residents deserve more from their government.

“As I continue to meet with residents throughout our community, I am hearing a common theme, whether it’s in the far North End, the West End, the East or the South End there is a belief that our City Council does not care to include the public in the decision making process,” stated Rho. “As a candidate I remain committed to going street-by-street, block-by-block, and neighborhood-by-neighborhood to understand their concerns, and to deliver my message. As an elected official, I will take that same approach by opening up our meetings and allowing time for residents to speak.”

Currently New Bedford City Council meetings are open for citizen input only for Appointments and Briefings Committee at the discretion of the Chairperson. Many of our surrounding communities allow time either at the start or completion of each meeting to allow for citizen input.

“If people believe back room deals are being struck, let’s end that belief. Let’s bring the public into the fold, so that sound decisions can be made with citizen input for the improvement of our community.”

Rho believes the City Council has the duty, and the responsibility, not only to respect this principle, but also to conduct the legislative process in the open, allowing ample time for public comment and input.

“Whether it’s for Councillors to vote on a pay raise for themselves, debating a $3 million school deficit, or whether to discuss fees and tax increase to sustain our local budget, the public should be invited to speak.”

By Matt Camara | Standard-Times