Odds are Fall River mayor can’t lose

Recall of Flanagan likely to succeed but large field will split vote

An ad appearing on Flanagan’s Facebook page.

Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan may pull off one of the most improbable election victories in history in three weeks: the odds are pretty good that voters on the same day will recall him from office for a variety of alleged misdeeds and then immediately reelect him.

The recall effort is gaining momentum because concern about Flanagan’s mayoralty has reached a fever pitch. But on the same ballot where voters are being asked to weigh in on the recall, they will also be asked to select a replacement. Flanagan has thrown his hat in the ring, along with seven other candidates. The early betting is that Flanagan’s rivals will split the vote and the recalled mayor will return to office. It’s a scenario that has even the most seasoned political observers shaking their heads in amazement.

“It’s like I’m reading The Onion,” said Shannon Jenkins, chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, referring to the satirical news website. “I would imagine it’s almost unheard of. There are probably not a lot of candidates who are standing up to be recalled and put themselves on the ballot. A lot of them put their faith in the idea, ‘I’m not going to be recalled.’ It’s a smart move on Flanagan’s part. It would make a great headline: ‘Mayor wins election in which he’s recalled.’”

The potential for that headline to become reality was set in motion earlier this month when Judge Thomas McGuire Jr. ruled that the Dec. 16 vote for mayor will not be a preliminary election, with the top two finishers moving on to a runoff in January. That means all Flanagan needs to win is to gain a plurality of the votes cast. McGuire also gave Flanagan a bit of a lift, ruling that his name should be placed atop the ballot because of state election laws that mandate that incumbents be listed first. It was a win-win for Flanagan, who agreed he feels optimistic that the ducks are lining up for him to keep his job.

“For a number of reasons I do, but I’m not taking anything for granted,” said the third-term mayor. “I’m hoping 51 percent of the people are against recalling me but, if not, I can still win by a plurality. I feel this is going to be the closest race I’ve ever been involved in.”

The recall – the second attempt to remove Flanagan from office through the recall process (the first bid never made it to the ballot) – was triggered by his decision to raise taxes as well as his unilateral implementation of a pay-as-you-throw trash policy. Flanagan, who also instituted a tipping and dumpster fee on landlords, said the program was needed to reduce the amount of trash being thrown away. With the closing of the city’s landfill, Flanagan felt he needed to take action to reduce the amount of trash being hauled to an incinerator. The recall petitioners collected more than 5,000 signatures in less than three weeks, 2-½ times the number needed.

Since the recall effort started, there have been a number of incidents that have added to the movement to oust Flanagan from office. In September, City Councilor Jaseil Correia alleged that in a late-night meeting on the waterfront with Flanagan in the mayor’s SUV, the mayor brandished a gun while trying to persuade Correia to renounce his signature on the recall petition.

Flanagan also has been accused of associating with a local businessman who reputedly has ties to the Rhode Island mob.

Flanagan doesn’t admit any wrongdoing, but he acknowledges he hasn’t done himself any favors. “I’m human, I’m not perfect,” he said. “People make mistakes in life. I’m not saying I’ve been perfect. When mistakes are made, you’ve got to learn for them.”

City Councilor Michael Miozza, who is one of the seven candidates seeking to succeed Flanagan, said he is no fan of recalls. But he said the accumulation of Flanagan missteps, coupled with what he says is Flanagan’s hubris in his approach to governance, has fanned the flames.

“The incident down at the waterfront was the thing that put this over the top,” he said. “You’ve got a mayor out at midnight with a gun. That right there in itself is not conduct, not behavior, of a leader. I hope he’s starting to be contrite, but even if he is it’s a little too late at this point in time.”

Miozza said he fears the large number of candidates running to replace Flanagan will only split the vote and return the mayor to office. So he said he tried to organize several of the more notable candidates, such as District Attorney Sam Sutter and former councilor David Dennis, to coalesce behind one person and give that person a better chance of defeating Flanagan.

“My idea was to get behind one candidate, but none of the other ones wanted to,” Miozza said. “I guess we all feel we’re all the best candidate to do this job.”

Jenkins, the UMass Dartmouth professor, said most people in the area believe Sutter has the best chance of defeating Flanagan. With his name recognition and campaign machine, Sutter could pull in the majority of votes from those who want change in what she thinks will be a low-turnout affair.

“I really think that really complicates things for Flanagan,” she said. “Sutter may be the candidate that a lot of people gravitate to on the ballot.”

Flanagan, a former prosecutor under Sutter, said he is disappointed in his former boss. “He told me on several occasions that I was doing a good job and said, while he wanted to be mayor, he would never run against me,” Flanagan said.

But Miozza said many think Sutter got into the race at Flanagan’s urging in a bid to water down the opposition vote. Flanagan dismisses that speculation as hogwash. Sutter declined through a spokesman to discuss his candidacy.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

But Flanagan also said “politics is a dirty game” and many of those running are like predators who sense an injured prey. He says their focus is their own ambition, not what’s best for the city.

“I think they’re in it for the wrong reason,” he said. “They see an opportunity here in the recall election and they want to take advantage.”