The three Democratic candidates competing for the opportunity to unseat conservative firebrand and Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson appeared together on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight on Wednesday for their first and only debate before the September 6 primary. 

The candidates – Attleboro Mayor and former State Rep. Paul Heroux, former Somerset Police Chief George McNeil, and Attorney Nick Bernier – had very little policy daylight between them.

The key issue that was up for debate on Wednesday is which candidate is the best equipped to take on the well-funded and long-tenured Republican sheriff in the fall. After they introduced themselves, the candidates were each given the opportunity to ask each other questions.

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Heroux in his line of questioning sought to separate himself from the other candidates as being the most seasoned and successful campaigner. 

Paul Heroux via Facebook
Paul Heroux via Facebook

Heroux cited the most recent campaign finance reports that show Bernier received 170 donations, raised around $30,000 and has $4,000 currently on hand, and that McNeil has raised around $19,000, with $12,000 of his own money and $900 on currently hand, and he compared it to his own fundraising. 

“I’ve taken over 700 donations, and I’ve raised over $84,000," Heroux said. “And that matters because we have to be able to compete with Hodgson. So my question is, how do you honestly think you can beat Hodgson when you don’t have the money to move your message, and over the last several months you haven’t been doing the things that a serious campaign needs to do to actually move a message?” 

Heroux also distinguished himself from his opponents with his perfect 8-0 election record for both state representative and mayor, his success beating a longtime incumbent when he first ran for Mayor of Attleboro, and his experience as a corrections administrator in Philadelphia and for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. 

“The job of the sheriff is mainly to run a county jail," Heroux said. “I am the candidate who has experience working in a jail, and working in a prison. I have corrections experience. I also have management experience being a mayor. I was elected with 54 percent, reelected with 67 percent and then 66 percent, and actually I’ve been on the ballot more times than Hodgson has in a competitive race.”

Former Somerset Police Chief George McNeil
Courtesy George McNeil for Bristol County Sheriff

McNeil cited his long and accomplished career in law enforcement and his time as a professor teaching corrections and criminal justice at Bridgewater State University as his primary qualifications for the office. McNeil spent 37 years as a police officer, working his way up to lieutenant at the Randolph Police Department before serving as police chief in Somerset. He now works with Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission to help police departments get accredited.

“My background is not politics but I believe my cultural and institutional knowledge of both police officers and correctional officers make me a very good candidate to go up against the sheriff and get him out of there," McNeil said.

Nick Bernier for Sheriff via Facebook
Nick Bernier for Sheriff via Facebook

Bernier cited his work as an Assistant District Attorney, his experience being a candidate in a razor-thin election for Governor’s Council when he came up short by just 37 votes, and the campaign support he’s gotten from Bristol County leaders in elected office such as Bristol County Register of Probate Tom Hoye, Senate Ways and Means Chair Mike Rodrigues, County Commissioner John Saunders, and Governor's Councilor Joe Ferreira.

While most of the mentions of Sheriff Hodgson were critical of his “tough on crime" approach, which they all agreed does nothing to keep inmates from reoffending and ending up back in prison, Bernier had some kind words for Hodgson calling him a “gentleman, nice person, and great politician.” 

Bristol County Sheriff's Office via Facebook
Bristol County Sheriff's Office via Facebook

In the second hour of the debate, the candidates responded to questions from the callers and from App Chat messages on the WBSM app.

The topics of the questions from the audience ranged from what the candidates thought the sheriff's role should be in immigration enforcement, what experience the candidates had that would qualify them to fix a "broken" corrections system, and what they think are their personal strengths and weaknesses.

The candidates demonstrated civility toward each other, agreeing that they thought the other would be a better sheriff than Hodgson and committing to helping whoever emerges victorious on September 6 to take on Hodgson in the fall.

Listen to the full Democratic Primary Debate for Bristol County Sheriff moderated by Marcus on SouthCoast Tonight. 

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