Fall River’s New Young Mayor Hopes Fresh Ideas Can Solve City’s Old Problems

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Fall River Mayor-elect Jasiel Correia stands in front of the city’s former police station, which he hopes will be developed into market-rate apartments. Correia says that will help attract a middle class workforce, and it's just one of the goals he has for when he becomes mayor next month. (Simon Rios/WBUR)
Fall River Mayor-elect Jasiel Correia stands in front of the city’s former police station, which he hopes will be developed into market-rate apartments. Correia says that will help attract a middle class workforce, and it's just one of the goals he has for when he becomes mayor next month. (Simon Rios/WBUR)

Fall River recently elected the youngest mayor in its history.

Jasiel Correia, elected at 23 and now 24, is also believed to be the city’s first mayor of Cape Verdean descent. In less than a year he went from obscurity to the most powerful politician in a city of 90,000.

With a host of economic challenges and a political climate that makes him Fall River’s third mayor in a year, Correia hopes to bring new ideas to tackle the city’s old problems.

A City That Hasn’t Recovered

Correia drives through Fall River’s downtown in his black C-class Mercedes. He points to once-stately buildings now boarded-up and abandoned.

“It was actually gifted to the city for $1, unfortunately it was abruptly closed,” Correia said.

Correia thinks about the future when he looks at these buildings. Along with the armory and an old mill building he has designs for, there’s an old police headquarters he wants developed into market-rate apartments. That will help attract a middle class workforce, Correia says, and it’s just one of the goals he has for when he becomes mayor next month.

As Correia tours the downtown it’s plain to see that Fall River has yet to recover from the fall of its textile industry.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, median family income in Fall River sunk 13 percent between 2000 and 2011. Unemployment has come down in recent months, but it’s still among the highest in the state.

Now the turnaround is in the hands of a man born just days before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“This is the main street of where I grew up,” he said. “You have Chaves Market, a traditional Portuguese market, you have Columbia Street Bakery, which is where literally to this day my parents still get hot, fresh bread … every Sunday morning.”

Correia’s parents immigrated to Fall River as children, his dad from Cape Verde and his mother from the Azores. Being Luso American isn’t everything, but it means a lot in a city where roughly half the population identifies as Portuguese.

A Can-Do Attitude

Correia greets the regulars at his parents’ favorite bakery.

One of the customers, Amilcar Pessoa, approaches the mayor-elect to vent about his No. 1 concern: potholes.

“I call it the third world streets, because from wherever we go, we have potholes all over and nobody fixes them, and nobody takes care of them.”

“People are leaving the city because of lack of opportunity, because of lack of jobs, because of lack of educational system that they would want to raise a family in, and that’s what we need to change.”

– Fall River Mayor-elect Jasiel Correia

Pessoa says he voted for Correia because he wanted change. Age was a consideration, but he saw the debates and feels Correia knows the issues.

“He’s still very young, but in our days, if you are 23 and you are willing to do something good, we have to give him a chance to prove that he can do it,” Pessoa said.

One of Correia’s immediate goals is to change the city’s official motto.

“It’s ‘We’ll Try,’ ” he said with a laugh.

Correia says for a city battered by depression after recession after depression, the motto was originally meant to express a “can-do attitude.” But now the motto’s time has come.

“I really want to see it become a more positive slogan, maybe changing it to ‘We’ll Succeed,’ ” he said.

Plans To Turn Around Downtown

It isn’t just tired slogans, potholes and empty buildings that need attention.

The state recently spent $38 million to build an exit ramp to a new regional business park in Fall River. The park is targeting life sciences and technology companies, but Correia says it’s not meeting its promise to attract development.

He might feel differently if a recent deal hadn’t fallen through.

City officials say Biogen — the most valuable company based in Massachusetts — was in talks to open a $1 billion pharmaceutical plant in the park. But Biogen passed on Fall River, and decided to open its plant in Switzerland.

Instead of Biogen the park will get a 1-million-square-foot processing center for e-commerce giant Amazon, thanks in part to nearly $15 million in local and state tax incentives. With 500 full-time jobs expected, and more than 2,000 seasonal jobs, it’s big news for the city. But it’s not biotech.

For a guy born and raised in Fall River — and who’s founded three startup companies — economic development is personal.

“I want to raise a family here,” Correia said. “We need more people coming back after college to Fall River like I did. … That’s not happening right now. People are leaving the city because of lack of opportunity, because of lack of jobs, because of lack of educational system that they would want to raise a family in, and that’s what we need to change.”

How Correia Got Here

Correia became a city councilor two years ago. He actually lost the election, but ascended when the mayor plucked one of the elected councilors for a job in City Hall.

But some observers say Correia’s rise began one night in the summer of 2014. Then-Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan was facing a recall, and Correia had signed a petition in favor of that effort. The 22-year-old city councilor told investigators Flanagan pulled a gun from the center console of an SUV, placed it on the dashboard, and urged Correia to withdraw support for the petition.

A special prosecutor for the Bristol County district attorney declined to bring charges of intimidation or assault against Flanagan, and Correia declined to press charges himself. But the mayor lost the recall, and Correia was thrust into the municipal spotlight.

“It’s an interesting progression of events,” said Jo Goode, who covers City Hall for the Herald News of Fall River.

Had it not been for Correia’s alleged encounter with Flanagan, Goode said: “I don’t think he would have had that prominence, had that exposure, had that ability to look better than the mayor, and I think this latest election, that credibility carried over.”

Sam Sutter, who had had served as Bristol County’s district attorney for nine years, won the December 2014 special election to replace Flanagan after he was recalled. Not even a year later, Correia ran and beat Sutter.

It was a triumph of youth over incumbency; a Millennial over a Baby Boomer. But some say the discontent that drove out two consecutive mayors in Fall River could turn on Correia.

“[The] fundamentals behind the wave of voter discontent that drove him into office haven’t changed at all,” UMass Dartmouth political science professor Shannon Jenkins wrote in an email.

“The city has a lot of issues to deal with and not a lot of money to deal with those issues … I am not particularly confident that he’ll be successful, but for the city’s sake I hope I am wrong.”

The Pros And Cons Of Youth

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse also landed in office in his early 20s. And Morse knows something about having to prove himself.

“Our argument as young people is that we haven’t been around long enough to be beholden to special interests that may have hampered progress in our respective communities for decades,” Morse said.

Morse just won his third term as mayor, and he says youth is more of an asset than a liability.

“We run for these positions because we believe in the future of Holyoke, we believe in the future of Fall River, and we’re willing to make the tough decisions necessary to move the cities forward,” Morse said.

Morse says youthful leadership is about bringing new faces to city government. Correia says he wants new and old faces in his administration, and he wants to surround himself with smart people, the way Steve Jobs did.

Correia points to Nelson Mandela as a political idol. But he laughs when asked to name a favorite book.

“I was going to say ‘The Prince,’ that’s what I’ve been recommended to read, and ‘Art of War,’ ” he said.

Asked who recommended those classic political texts, Correia chuckled again: “Different political players in the city.”

Old political books and old political players. So this young mayor-elect isn’t breaking from history entirely.

Correia is still taking some of those lessons from the past, as he plans to begin implementing his vision for Fall River.

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