Attorney Scott Lang patrolled outside the city’s voting places yesterday the same way he’d been campaigning everywhere the past two months, listening as much as talking, and with his eyes on the prize, voters to be wooed and won with plain talk and unassuming ways.
“I could finish 10th tonight,” Scott Lang was saying seven hours before the polls would close.
But change was in the air and Lang knew it. You couldn’t miss it. He was part of it. Now, he was homing in on one of the most stunning upsets in recent New Bedford history, a trouncing of Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. in the preliminary election, winning 37 percent of the vote and outpolling the incumbent, 6,719-4,938.
Kalisz won only 27 percent of the vote in an election in which many observers had predicted he would need at least 40 percent to remain a viable candidate in the Nov. 8 final.
All told, about 13,000 voters opted for someone other than the incumbent as their choice for mayor. “Anybody but Kalisz” was a common comment yesterday. So was the remark that it was time for a change. The New Bedford truism, “The longer you stay in, the more votes you lose” was also invoked. Kalisz has been mayor for eight years, a dangerous lifespan in this unforgiving city.
All in all, the mayor is now left with a steep hill to climb in just one month of campaigning.
However, because of the sheer number of names that will appear on Tuesday’s ballot and because of an attack on one of the candidates in an unprecedently large advertising blitz by the Kalisz campaign, we believe that it is possible that one of the best-qualified candidates might be passed over by voters and that the entire community might pay a price for that.
Not since 1991 has a second-place finisher in the preliminary election come back to win the final. Rosemary S. Tierney managed to overcome a 1,000-vote deficit to win election over Mayor John K. Bullard.
Lang, who survived and may well have thrived as the target of a negative Kalisz campaign strategy, looms as a formidable final opponent.
“When I bear down on something, I become like a hot coal,” Lang said of himself yesterday. “I’m not going to put my life, reputation and time into something I don’t do 10,000 percent.”
What he wants to do is bring change to New Bedford’s neighborhoods.
He will likely be bearing down on his central campaign themes — fixing the problems close to home that people routinely talk about across the kitchen table — unsafe and unclean streets, inadequate schooling, the breakdown of civility.
“The wheels are coming off here,” he said, and described Kalisz as “a guy who flew too close to the sun” and lost his wings.
As he moved around the city yesterday, Lang found ample reason for optimism. “You’ll probably be in the lead” a police officer at a construction site told Lang as he passed by.
A woman outside Carney Academy said she ordinarily would be holding a Kalisz sign outside the precinct. But not this year. She said she got fed up by the mayor’s attack ads accusing Lang of being soft as a criminal prosecutor.
“Everyone in the neighborhood knows what happened in that case,” she told the candidate, and scolded him for not responding with the truth.
Lang said he couldn’t because he had no access to the files of a case about 20 years old.
I was able yesterday to spend time with all the major candidates in the mayor’s race, except for the mayor himself, who failed to acknowledge repeated phone calls asking for a chance to accompany him on the campaign trail.
That trail yesterday was highly festive with clusters of enthusiastic people presenting signs and banners and broad smiles and helping pump up turnout well beyond the 21 percent anticipated by the city’s election office. The final turnout was more than 36 percent, enough to cause a shortage of printed ballots at several precincts late in the day.
Veteran Councilor David Alves noted it is the year of the political virgins, with so many new candidates like Matt Morrissey and Dennis Dallaire Jr. bringing so many people into a campaign for the first time in their lives.
But it also brought out voters like the man in the yellow shirt who had voted only once in the past 10 years and never before in a city election. “My wife pushed me to it,” he said, speaking anonymously after leaving Mariners Health Center in the far North End. “It was because of the mayor’s race. She thought it was time for a change.”
They voted for Scott Lang.
So did a young couple who took their infant with them into the polling station. “We just want to try to better the city,” the husband said. They had met Scott Lang at a fund-raiser and were impressed.
Loretta Bourque, president of the Cove Street Neighborhood Association and a longtime poll worker at Hazelwood Park, sensed a mood of change, which is very different from change itself.
“I’m very interested to see whatever happens,” she said during her lunch break. “With all this talk about change in one way or another, it will be interesting to see whether they materialize.”