This Mass. mayor moonlights as a ‘Middle East expert’ on Russian state TV
In his day job, he warns residents about water main breaks, reminds them not to leave pets in hot cars, and worries about parking problems on Beagle Club Road.
In his other, slightly more unusual gig, Paul Heroux, the mayor of Attleboro, appears regularly as a “Middle East expert” on Russian state-funded television, considered an arm of Vladimir Putin’s government, to expound on the conflict in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, and growing unrest on the streets of Beirut.
Heroux — whose unorthodox resume includes a stint working at a Saudi Arabian bank and a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics — says he is happy to have a platform for his views on foreign affairs, even if that platform is a state propaganda network that most American politicians would not touch in the current political climate.
“Whenever I’m on, I post it on my Facebook page, and people think it’s really cool that their mayor or state rep is on TV in Russia,” said Heroux, a 41-year-old Democrat who was Attleboro’s state representative before he was elected mayor last year.
But critics say appearances by Americans on the network, RT International, only legitimize a platform that pushes Putin’s agenda of weakening Western alliances and undermining democracy.
A US intelligence report declassified last year called RT “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet,” and said it was part of Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and helping to elect Donald Trump as president.
“The purpose of RT is to promote the Kremlin line,” said Robert Orttung, a professor at George Washington University who studies Russian media. “It’s funded by the Russian government to get the Russian message out there, and what Russia is trying to do at the moment is to divide the West and undermine democratic institutions in the US just to make democracy look bad.”
By appearing on the network, Heroux “gives them more authenticity,” Orttung said.
Heroux said his Russian TV hits haven’t bothered anyone in Attleboro, a middle-class city of 44,000 near the Rhode Island border, and he has never been paid by the network or experienced any Kremlin control over his comments, which generally echo Democratic Party talking points in support of the Iran deal and in opposition to Trump’s immigration policies and his travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim countries.
“If CNN or MSNBC had me on, I would say the exact same things,” he said.
He has not appeared on RT since Trump and Putin met in Helsinki this week, but said Trump’s performance there shows “he’s in over his head.”
A vegan who does not smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine, Heroux readily acknowledges that he does not fit the meat-and-potatoes mold of a typical Massachusetts mayor. He has vacationed in North Korea and is planning his next trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also has three master’s degrees and self-published a 500-page book on American involvement in the Middle East from the end of World War I to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“I’m kind of different,” Heroux said.
Heroux said he started commenting for RT in 2011, when he began writing for the Huffington Post and was contacted by the network. Since then, he said, he has appeared on the network three dozen times — using Skype at home or a studio in Providence — and has written for RT’s website.
“It’s gotten to the point where they just call me on my phone and I have them on speed dial,” he said.
The network, formerly Russia Today, is slick, sophisticated, and sometimes sardonic, not like crude Soviet-era propaganda, said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Drezner said he appeared on RT once in 2016, when he was assured his comments would not be edited, but that he would not do so again.
“The question is, if you go on a program and you’re saying what you would say otherwise, and you’re not being edited, is that in and of itself fine, or have you legitimized a network that doesn’t always play fair?” he said. “I have my own answer. By and large, I wouldn’t do it.”
But Cynthia Hooper, associate professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, said she appreciates RT’s critical coverage of American social and economic problems.
“I don’t think you can say that people should censor their opinions by not commenting for it,” she said. “But you have to keep in mind, it has an agenda that makes us look bad and it will expose hypocrisy in the US in a way it’s not willing to do with its funding country, Russia.”
Heroux’s appearances resemble many that be might seen on American cable TV.
In one appearance, the mayor and a conservative American comedian heatedly debated immigration policies, complete with indignant sniping.
“Sir! Sir! Don’t interrupt me,” Heroux protested when the comic, Tim Young, started talking over him. “Sir, please don’t interrupt me. I didn’t interrupt you.”
In another appearance, Heroux discussed the global implications of growing tensions between the United States and its European allies.
“As a consequence, some of these other countries — China, Russia, India — can fill a power vacuum,” Heroux told an RT host, crediting that notion to Fareed Zakaria’s book, “The Post-American World.”
In Attleboro, the mayor’s side gig as a Russian TV talking head seems to elicit more eye-rolling than serious concern.
“People who see it are like, ‘Oh, that’s Paul,’ ” said Todd Kobus, an Attleboro city councilor, adding that he’s watched a few of the appearances and finds them “a little weird and awkward.”
“They’re so removed from what’s happening locally,” he said.
Richard Conti, another city councilor, chuckled when asked about Heroux going on RT.
“People just accept that that’s what he does and that’s his little hobby,” Conti said, adding that he’s not concerned at all. “I’m fascinated with astronomy,” he said. “What does that have to do with anything? Nothing.”