No shoo-in in Taunton
Three candidates join O’Connell in Silver City race
A correction has been added to this story
IT MAY HAVE looked like a bipartisan cakewalk at first, but by Tuesday afternoon the race for mayor of Taunton became a full-on food fight with four candidates running for the newly opened seat.
With a little more than a day before nominating signatures were due, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, on Monday announced the appointment of Taunton Mayor Tom Hoye, a Democrat, to the position of Bristol County register of probate.
Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican, leapt at the soon-to-be-vacated mayoralty, declaring her candidacy within an hour of the governor’s announcement, according to the State House News Service.
Although there was a short turnaround for candidates to seek ballot access, there was also a low threshold of only 25 signatures from registered voters on nomination papers. Three more candidates – including one Democrat – submitted nominating signatures along with O’Connell by Tuesday’s deadline, according to Taunton City Hall.
While the mayoral election for the small city is a non-partisan exercise, both of the major parties took the opportunity to blast their opponents.
Sensing an attempt to give O’Connell an unimpeded path to the ballot, Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the governor’s move was “undemocratic and the kind of tactic preferred by dictators.”
Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons, in turn, called Bickford a hypocrite because of the changes Democratic state lawmakers have made in recent years to favor Democrats when filling US Senate vacancies.
“Democratic Party power brokers are obsessed with control, and whenever that control comes into question, we see tantrums and meltdowns like what we witnessed out of him,” Lyons said, referring to Bickford.
Holly Robichaud, a Republican consultant who has worked for O’Connell for years, denied that there was any coordination with the governor’s office to give O’Connell a leg up in the election that will occur this fall.
“Representative O’Connell was looking at running for mayor for a while,” said Robichaud, who said it was an “easy decision” when word broke that Hoye would vacate the office. Tamping down the talk of a backroom deal, Robichaud said Hoye had supported O’Connell’s opponents in the past, and said it had “been speculated for a while” that Hoye wouldn’t seek re-election.
Pacheco said that O’Connell’s robo-call asked people to sign her nomination papers, and an earlier version of this story repeated that claim, but Robichaud said it is not true and included the script of the call, which does not ask for signatures.
The governor’s office referred questions about the political ramifications of Hoye’s appointment to the Republican party.
Four other candidates followed O’Connell into the fray, according to Taunton City Hall, and three turned in papers: City Councilor Estele Borges, a Democrat, independent Peter Bzdula, and Mark Baptiste, whose party registration information was not available from City Hall on Tuesday. Democrat Jonathan Gray pulled papers, but didn’t turn them in.
O’Connell’s decision to seek the mayoralty was a surprise to some colleagues, who allowed that it makes some political sense.
“I was as shocked as anybody else, but I guess if she wins she would leave her position, but if she loses she would still be in her position as state rep,” said Rep. Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican.
Another Republican source noted that O’Connell garnered press attention and notoriety when Gov. Deval Patrick, was in office, but has played a more subdued role with a fellow Republican in the corner office.
First elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, O’Connell has been part of a restive group within the House Republican minority, but the number of rabble-rousers has dwindled this session. Lyons was part of that faction, as was Geoff Diehl, who made an unsuccessful run for US Senate last year and whose campaign Robichaud managed.
Apart from the work of leading a city of 57,000, the mayoralty includes other enticements. Last year the city council boosted the mayor’s pay to $125,500, according to the Taunton Gazette, making it nearly twice the annual pay O’Connell earns as a backbencher in the House. Working at City Hall would also mean fewer days sitting through traffic on the highways into Boston.
As Massachusetts cities go, Taunton is fairly moderate, and a mix of Democrats and Republicans represent the Silver City in the State House. In 2016, Donald Trump won 41 percent of the vote there, which was better than his statewide results. Last year, Baker cleaned up there with 71 percent of the vote.
Hoye’s appointment to the oft-overlooked elected county position has raised hackles elsewhere in southeastern Massachusetts politics. Swansea Selectman Christopher Carreiro, who is interested in running for register, said he was surprised by Hoye’s appointment because Hoye had indicated he would run for re-election, according to WBSM-AM.