New Bedford’s Mitchell grinds out wins
By Evan Lips | September 18, 2015, 12:21 EDT
New Bedford may not have hit it out of the park this year, but “we’re OK hitting singles and doubles,” Mitchell said in a recent interview with the NewBostonPost.
“That approach is more sustainable,” Mitchell said.
So far, Mitchell’s strategy for breathing life back into this one-time whaling hub, 50 miles south of Boston, is a winning one, even if the casino project was squashed and the turbine works never materialized.
In July, New Bedford’s unemployment rate fell to 7.2 percent, down from 14.2 percent in 2010. Last year, New Bedford recorded the largest year-over-year drop in joblessness out of 372 American metropolitan areas.
And business is booming, Mitchell says. The city maintains the largest commercial fishing port in America, dwarfing the Gloucester fleet’s catch by nine times.
But there’s more to the city than fishing: It also ranks second in the nation when it comes to harnessing solar energy (only Honolulu ranks ahead of New Bedford). And within the last year, cargo tonnage has doubled at the city’s port.
Mitchell also points to the city’s manufacturing base, which includes Acushnet Co., the maker of Titleist golf balls. The company employs more than 3,000 workers. The Joseph Abboud apparel company has more than 500 employees. The city’s business park, the fifth largest in Massachusetts, is running out of space.
And the city’s biggest employer, the Southcoast Hospital Group, lists more than 3,800 workers.
Even tourism – centered on the historic whaling industry and various fairs and festivals – is growing. Included in the annual lineup are the Summerfest Folk Music and Arts Festival, the traditional Blessing of the Fleet, and the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, the largest celebration of Portuguese heritage and culture in the nation.
With New Bedford’s diverse array of industry, it’s difficult to pinpoint one area of business as being responsible for the city’s resurgent economy.
“It’s not just a matter of riding a rising national economic tide,” Mitchell said. “There’s something different going on here. I think what we’re doing has attracted more investments and quite frankly a lot more optimism.”
At the helm: a political newcomer
What prompted Mitchell, a prominent federal prosecutor, a married father of three, to launch a longshot campaign for mayor in 2011?
“It wasn’t the shortening of my commute — although that was the frosting on the cake,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “Honestly, I feel very strongly about this place.”
The lawyer was a political unknown with empty campaign coffers running against longtime state Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat.
“I like to joke that I came into this job with few relevant skills,” Mitchell said.
Cabral had been representing New Bedford on Beacon Hill since 1990. In 1990, Mitchell was in his early 20s, studying at Harvard College and preparing to embark on a legal career that would see him successfully prosecute those responsible for an April 2003 oil spill in Buzzard’s Bay, among other defendants.
His roots run deep in the South Coast area. His grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, fought in World War II before he was lost at sea aboard the Anna C. Perry, a Nantucket dragger that sank on March 11, 1952, while returning to New Bedford from the Georges Bank fishing grounds, loaded with fish.
Alexander Mitchell’s name is engraved on the wall inside the Seamen’s Bethel, the church made famous worldwide for its appearance in Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby-Dick.
“We are our own thing.”
During the interview, Mitchell only touched briefly on his roots, but he became visibly more animated when asked about his city.
“We are not a satellite of Boston or any other city,” he said, with a hint of defiance in his voice.
“There are other cities, the Reveres, Quincys, and Everetts, close to Boston, whose redevelopment depends largely on connecting to the main city.
“We are our own thing. We are a city of 100,000, and we will rise or fall on our own.”
It’s a sentiment that has long been shared by many in New Bedford. For decades, the city was part of the fourth congressional district – which stretched as far north as Brookline and Newton. For years, the district was represented by Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat who was identified more with the Hub’s bedroom communities and less with the South Coast. This made some city residents, who feel a greater kinship with other Massachusetts coastal areas than they do with Boston’s western suburbs, feel neglected.
But the results of the 2010 Census changed all that. Massachusetts’s decline in population meant that the Bay State would lose a congressional seat in 2012. In the redistricting process, the legislature moved New Bedford into the ninth district, which is comprised of the South Shore, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The seat is held by Bill Keating, a Democrat from Bourne.
It was a move that made sense to Mitchell, who has long seen his city’s political interests as more akin to those of the Cape than to those of Boston.
“Since World War II, we’ve been a district tied to Boston,” Mitchell pointed out. “What happened in 2013 (following the redistricting) makes a lot more sense in the long run.
“We’d been part of a gerrymandered district for several decades and now New Bedford really is the ‘center of gravity’ in a new district,” he said.
Mitchell said that one lesson he learned early in his first term is that “good urban design really matters.”
Those who’ve only read about New Bedford in the newspapers, Mitchell said, aren’t seeing the city’s downtown grid of cobblestone streets or the whaling-era architecture the city has relentlessly tried to preserve.
Now in his second term, Mitchell notes that many people have a lingering perception of New Bedford as the down on its luck city from decades ago. “You can [still] find evidence of that,” Mitchell said, “but the reality is not always the same as perception.”
“Perception is a lagging indicator,” he said.
“Visitors usually say our downtown looks a lot like Nantucket, and there’s good reason for that,” Mitchell said. “In the 1760s, that’s where the whaling merchants lived and we’ve worked hard to preserve that,” he said of the city center.
Mitchell believes that even small touches can have a big impact. In the summer of 2014, the Department of Public Works affixed potted palm trees to dozens of public trash receptacles. The look was so popular that the city elected to transport the palms inside ahead of the fall’s first frost.
The same palms reappeared early this summer.
“We’ve done the little things, like fixing streetscapes and improving the landscape,” Mitchell said. “You name it and we’re doing it.”
One treasure in the city’s center is Custom House Square, a plot of land that was once a crumbling parking lot. Under Mitchell in 2013 the land was transformed into an intimate public park. Features include grassy rolling slopes and a variety of plants and trees.
“What I’ve tried to do as mayor is cultivate a high level of pride among our residents and one way to do that is to just make the place look nice,” Mitchell said. “We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the little things.”
Asked about his top initiatives during his time in office, Mitchell pointed to the city’s school system. In 2013, city officials tapped Pia Durkin, Attleboro’s former schools chief, to serve as superintendent. Durkin took the reins at one of the state’s lowest-performing school districts. Things had gotten so bad that it was on the verge of a dreaded Level 5 designation, a classification that would have led to a complete state takeover.
A recent New Bedford Standard-Times editorial praised the turnaround Durkin has engineered since then.
Mitchell also pointed out that the city now has, for the first time in its history, a chief financial officer. In 2013, Mitchell hired Ari J. Sky to fill the position.
“We’ve streamlined smaller city departments,” Mitchell said. “We’ve instituted core principles, something we call The New Bedford Way, a statement on our commitment to teamwork and innovation.”
A copy of The New Bedford Way statement of values, according to Mitchell, now hangs inside every department.
“It’s something our department heads developed at my request,” Mitchell added.
The little things are adding up, Mitchell noted, citing a recent upgrade in the city’s bond rating.
Last year, Standard & Poor’s Rating Service raised New Bedford to a AA- rating, the fourth-highest on its scale of investment quality, and the city’s highest since 1970.
The S&P reaffirmed the rating earlier this year.
“That’s really a validation of our efforts,” Mitchell said.
Future in public office?
As for public life, Mitchell said he has discovered that his family, especially his children, have not been affected as much as he thought they’d be by his political career. Mitchell acknowledged that one of his fears upon entering his first term as mayor was that his children would be treated differently at school.
“They would become the ‘mayor’s kids,’” Mitchill said. “I was initially concerned that they would be known that way. As it turns out, that hasn’t happened.”
Mitchell ran unopposed for reelection in 2013, the first incumbent to enjoy that situation since 1866. He is running again this fall, having kicked off his official campaign on Aug. 11.
This time, Mitchell faces a formidable foe in Maria Giesta, Frank’s longtime chief of staff. Giesta’s connections in Washington are impressive. Before joining Frank’s staff, she worked in former U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry’s office.
Mitchell didn’t talk about his rival, but did touch on whether he’s thinking of someday running for higher office.
“I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m fully engaged here,” he said. “The success of [New Bedford] is an end in itself.”
Like its homespun mayor, New Bedford is not flashy and may not attract much national (or even regional) attention. But as any baseball fan knows, singles and doubles can also win ball games.