There's a Time in Every Legislator's Life When City Hall Looks Better than the State House

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

If State Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral's brand new campaign for mayor of New Bedford is successful, he will join a long line of politicians who decided they could get more done at City Hall than at the State House.

Just a few years ago, for example, we saw Chip Clancy leave the Massachusetts Senate and Bob Correia leave the House to become, respectively, the mayors of Lynn and Fall River.

After a long stay in the Massachusetts legislature, where no one can get a law enacted or a budget item adopted on his own, it's understandable that one may look longingly at the strong, unilateral powers that many cities grant their mayors.

You can shape the political dialogue, and you can control the outcome of a political showdown, more easily as a mayor than when you are one of 160 state reps or 40 state senators.

Legislators are no different from the rest of us who drag ourselves out of bed and go to work every morning: they want to get results. They want to be able to point to something good and say, "I did that."

If you're a big-city mayor -- and with a population of 95,000 and a land mass of 24 square miles, New Bedford is a big city -- you get to play in a big urban sandbox.

You can build roads, schools and playgrounds. You can move police and fire departments with a phone call. You can make millionaire developers and Ph.D. sociologists dance to whatever tune you feel like playing.

Compared to a big urban sandbox, the legislature can be like a waiting room at a bus station where the schedules keep changing and every driver is running late, not that it isn't an honor to be in that room.

I've watched Tony Cabral in action for years and I can tell you he is one smart, tenacious and formidable guy. A former teacher, he understands not only how the gears of government turn, but also how they can be made to turn, or not.

At the Massachusetts State House, one of the highest compliments they can give is, So and so "knows how to move an issue." Friends and adversaries alike say that about Tony Cabral.

During budget deliberations, it was always instructive to watch how Cabral moved constantly about the floor of the House while so many others were sitting still. He always seemed to be putting a word in with this chairman or that, or to be on the podium, checking something out with the Speaker and his staff, or to be consulting the papers he carried in his hands and pockets.

Cabral has the natural ability to ask nicely for something while conveying the impression he will not make it easy for you to say no, and that, no, he will not "understand" if you feel you are compelled by circumstances beyond your control to deny him. This bodes well for his effectiveness as New Bedford's chief executive, should he prevail in a multi-candidate field this fall.

Since arriving in the legislature in 1991, he has amassed significant power under a succession of Speakers and is currently a member of leadership by virtue of holding the House chair of the Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Administration. But there are many ahead of him in that inertia-wrapped chain of leadership.

I suspect that Cabral, at age 56, was getting impatient for new leadership opportunities and that his hometown looked better and better to him the longer he commuted to the State House . (It is 51 miles from New Bedford to Boston.)

Incumbent New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang's decision not to seek re-election gave Cabral the opportunity to make a move and he seized it yesterday during a spirited outdoor rally in The Whaling City.

In announcing his candidacy, Cabral told of how he came to the U.S. with his family from the island of Pico in the Azores when he was 14 years old. "None of us spoke English. We had neither money nor connections nor an understanding of what life here would be like," he said. "So my parents survived by clinging to a promise, to America's promise: that through hard work and education, their children would succeed."

Best of all, politically, Cabral's run for mayor is low-risk: he does not have to forfeit his House seat to be in the race, although he has said he will not hold both jobs if elected mayor.

Speaking of risk, there's a lot more of it when you're a mayor than a legislator. Just ask Ex-Mayor Clancy and Ex-Mayor Correia, two once very popular gentlemen who ran afoul of ever-demanding and ever-changeable electorates.

With this mayoral campaign, Tony Cabral is clinging to the right promise. Again. He's a good man. I wish him well.

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