Ask Paul Heroux how you pronounce his last name and he’ll give you an answer — three of them in fact.
“Hero, Her-roo, or Her-row,” Attleboro’s mayor told a TV reporter who asked at a recent press conference. It depends on how he feels when he wakes up in the morning, he said, smiling.
It says something about the 46-year-old who recently ousted longtime Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson in a contentious campaign.
Called a “technocrat” by some, Heroux takes whatever job he is in seriously; himself, not so much.
But a lot more people are going to have to learn how to say the mayor’s name. Heroux, running as a Democrat, gained statewide and even national attention Tuesday for ousting the Republican Hodgson, an ardent supporter of former president Donald Trump
Now, in the wake of the campaign he says, he’s getting up to 500 emails and text messages a day. “I wish people would stop contacting me…It’s overwhelming,” he told The Sun Chronicle. But he plans to answer them all.
Heroux didn’t take the usual route to politics: political science major in college, perhaps a law degree, working in the trenches of party politics and nitty-gritty campaigns.
In fact, his resume reads like that of someone who can’t quite make up his mind what he wants to do when he grows up, other than it has to be interesting.
Heroux, an Attleboro native, has lived in or visited some of the world’s notorious hot spots, including Saudi Arabia (where he says he was once shot at — the shooter missed) and North Korea (as a tourist). He’s earned multiple college degrees, served three terms as a state legislator, was three times elected mayor of a city of 40,000 and — along the way — worked in a number of other public or semi-public posts.
He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and neuroscience from the University of Southern California in 2001. He briefly thought about going into medicine. A stint teaching English in Saudi Arabia led to a job for a non-partisan think tank that did work on national security and that led in turn to a master’s in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and then a master’s from the London School of Economics in 2006.
In the meantime, he worked for correction departments in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and eventually edged into politics, spurred by realizing the values he was seeing in the Bush administration were different from his own. He went on to pursue yet another master’s, this time from the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
He’ll be putting some of that experience to work starting in January when he’s sworn in as sheriff, taking on the responsibility of the county’s jails, sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers. He says Hodgson has reached out to him about a transition.
(A special election will be held sometime before that to pick a successor. City Councilor Cathleen DeSimone and former councilor John Davis have both announced their candidacies.)
In a wide-ranging interview with The Sun Chronicle after Tuesday’s election, Heroux talked about what he’ll miss about being mayor.
“The staff, first of all,” he said. “This is my fourth level of government,” he said, after working in legislative and executive offices. “This is the staff I’ve enjoyed the most.” And despite an ongoing labor dispute with local firefighters, he says he has a good relationship with the department heads around the city.
It’s a relationship he’ll try to carry over to the sheriff’s office where Hodgson has had 25 years to build up a staff loyal to him. But Heroux said he doesn’t plan to bring in a whole slate of his own people (although he may employ some of his old mentors in a transition team.)
About 600 people work for the sheriff’s department — comparable to a municipal workforce, although the city’s budget is about $110 million higher, including the schools, than the sheriff department’s $54 million. (If the current sheriff salary stays the same, Heroux stands to get a modest $13,000 raise from his $128,000 pay as mayor.).
“I don’t plan to come in and start firing people. I know that’s been a concern,” he said, adding he had no intention of micromanaging the system. “Institutional knowledge matters. There’s a huge learning curve but there’s an institution I need to learn.”
But he said the chain of command goes both ways.
When he took over as mayor, he said, he told city hall staff “we have to be honest with each other.” It’s even more important in his new job. “In jail, lying is worthless and it’s dangerous. First and most important is you have to be honest.”
He said he and his new staff have to work together, but they have to remember “I’m coming in with a mandate for change.” If, he adds, “I later found out that they lied to me, there will be consequences.”
As for the accomplishments of his administration, Heroux points with the most pride to the environmental initiatives he’s pushed for. Among the greenest, however, is not a law, but the acquisition of the former Highland Country Club — the 117-year-old golf course just outside the center of the city, that filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Heroux acquired it to preserve open space and prevent it from being snapped up for house lots or condos.
Outlasting the miles of sidewalks the city has added or even the new high school (for which Heroux says he probably gets too much credit) the mayor thinks Highland will be a lasting benefit to the city “a hundred or two hundred years from now.”
But it’s also the source of one of his biggest disappointments. Heroux’s been pushing for a performing arts pavilion at Highland, but has run into opposition. “I think the city council is making a mistake giving this a hard time,” he said.
One thing that won’t change for Heroux is the cost to him personally of his focus on his work. He’s said in the past that his career has cost him relationships he’s valued.
“If you have a wife or husband and you are both on the same page, then it’s easy to survive,” he says. But trying to come in from the outside, “a lot of people run. It’s tough.”
Despite his ambition for higher office, Heroux says he was perfectly prepared to lose the sheriff’s election (and the margin of victory was narrow enough that it was a real possibility.)
“I was mentally prepared to go back to private life and finish my Ph.D.,” he says, possibly in statistics. “Then I could work for NASA. That would be cool.”
Instead, there are all those emails to answer.