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A new sheriff in town in Bristol County, as Heroux ousts Hodgson

With 95 percent of the vote counted Wednesday afternoon, Heroux led Hodgson by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent, a gap of just over 2,000 votes.

Newly elected Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux spoke to the media in the yard of his home.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

ATTLEBORO — In a narrow victory that many saw as an upset, Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, a Democrat, unseated controversial Republican incumbent Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson in Tuesday’s election, ending Hodgson’s 25-year run of conservative law enforcement policies that earned him a national profile, often at odds with Massachusetts’ leftward slant.

With 95 percent of the vote counted Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported Heroux led Hodgson by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent, a gap of just over 2,000 votes.

Based on their own vote tallies, Heroux declared victory and Hodgson conceded in a speech late Tuesday night.

“It was basically time for change,” Heroux said at a Wednesday morning press conference in his backyard.


In his concession speech, Hodgson — the state’s longest-serving sheriff — reiterated his love for the job.

“This has been a great run for me, 25 years as sheriff,” Hodgson told reporters at his watch party Tuesday night. “The people of this county have given me their trust and their honor to serve, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

A spokeswoman for Hodgson’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The election brings to a close a tenure marked by controversy that began almost as soon as Hodgson was appointed sheriff by the governor in 1997. In the late 1990s, Hodgson attracted national attention for introducing the use of chain gangs, a practice that has since ended.

More recently, Hodgson, an avid Donald Trump loyalist, attracted criticism over the high number of suicides in county lockups and his treatment of immigrant detainees that he held on contract for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in Dartmouth. The Biden administration canceled that contract last year over those concerns.

At his news conference Wednesday, Heroux pledged reforms, such as improvements to reentry programs for inmates to decrease recidivism, and collecting more data to find out what’s working and what isn’t. He repeated pledges to conduct independent reviews of suicides in the county’s jails and whether to continue the use of Ash Street Jail in New Bedford, one of the nation’s oldest jails.


The sheriff-elect also suggested that there will be a stylistic change at the sheriff’s office, to better reflect that sheriffs in Massachusetts are mostly responsible for running the jails and should play a limited role in local law enforcement — a point of criticism often levied against Hodgson.

Heroux said he won’t wear dress blues, carry a firearm, or weigh in on national issues like immigration, which Hodgson often did.

Still, he said he would spend the initial period of his term listening to the employees at the sheriff’s office and community groups before embarking on reform.

“The worst thing that could happen to this system is that I go in thinking I know everything,” Heroux said. “But I’m also coming in with a mandate for change.”

Local activists from Bristol County for Correctional Justice, who have been organizing against Hodgson for five years, pushed Heroux to run, and played a major role in his campaign, rejoiced at the result.

“I think a lot of people started to pay attention and saw that the complaints were real,” said attorney and BCCJ activist Betty Ussach. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Late in the campaign, the race turned testy, after Hodgson faced accusations that his repeated assertions that Heroux was funded by investors George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, who are both Jewish, played on antisemitic tropes.


Hodgson said Bloomberg and Soros fund national advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and the Working Families Party, which spent heavily for his opponent. Hodgson was proud of his tough-on-crime reputation, highlighted repeated accreditations of his facilities from national groups, and dismissed criticisms of his treatment of inmates as partisan hit-jobs.

Wednesday morning, Heroux again criticized Hodgson’s references to Bloomberg and Soros as antisemitic, but acknowledged outside spending played a role in the race.

Indeed, the contest attracted an unusual level of attention for a normally under-the-radar Massachusetts sheriff’s race.

Heroux said outside groups spent about half a million dollars to support him.

“By taking those really hard-core, right-wing positions, he brought that on himself, and Republicans brought the spending on themselves by pushing for Citizens United,” Heroux said, referring to the controversial US Supreme Court ruling that prevented restrictions on corporate donations to political campaigns.

“Everytown was proud to support Heroux’s campaign, and stand ready to help him keep Bristol County residents safe from gun violence,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, Hodgson received more than $100,000 from a political action committee associated with Governor Charlie Baker, who endorsed him.

The race was close, but Heroux was largely boosted to victory by a considerable margin of about 4,500 votes over Hodgson in New Bedford, one of the county’s largest cities. The results were tight in the rest of the county, including Heroux’s hometown of Attleboro, which the Democrat won narrowly.


The results indicate there’s a limit to the appeal of Hodgson’s tough-on-crime, hard-on-immigration rhetoric even in Bristol County, where a ballot measure to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses failed by 13 points.

Democrats also flipped the sheriff’s office in Barnstable County, where Falmouth attorney Donna Buckley narrowly defeated state Representative Timothy R. Whelan in the race for the open seat that had long been held by a Republican.

Though less-watched than the race in neighboring Bristol County, the contest in Barnstable hit on similar themes.

Buckley, who will be the county’s first female sheriff, made ending the county’s detention contract with ICE, the last of its kind in Massachusetts, a central theme of her campaign, along with stressing that the sheriff’s role isn’t one of law enforcement.

“People always assumed it was a Republican stronghold,” Buckley said by phone on Wednesday afternoon. “But this election has clearly stated that is not a reflection of the will of the voters.”

The elections leave Massachusetts with two remaining Republican sheriffs: Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald, who was unopposed on Tuesday’s ballot, and Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis, who cruised to victory over a Democratic challenger.

Alexander Thompson can be reached at alexander.thompson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson