NEW BEDFORD, MASS. — LIKE a navigator, Mayor John Bullard is guiding this seaport city through the challenges of the '90s: a retooling economy hit with decreased state and federal aid, costly and socially disruptive repair of infrastructure, and problems with drugs. He's a popular and tough mayor who operates by eliciting lots of community feedback, then coming to a decision and sticking to it.
``One meaning of leadership is making difficult decisions and spending political capital,'' says the lanky, boyish-looking mayor. ``It's one thing to accumulate political capital; George Bush has an enormous amount of [it], he's very popular. The important question is: What do you do with that capital? It's like a bank account.''
While most mayors do not share the national spotlight with the president, their actions shape the quality of life for the residents of cities across the nation.
Mayor Bullard's willingness to put his popularity on the line to get an unpopular project completed, to spend what he calls political capital, was put to a test when he decided last February to site a secondary waste-water treatment plant in the Fort Rodman neighborhood in the southern part of the city, against the wishes of a citizens' advisory group. The site was picked because that's where the current primary plant is. He had started out very popular in that part of the city but the opposition was so fierce it almost cost him reelection in November.
``Seventy-five percent of the people in that area turned out to vote,'' he recalls. ``And 75 percent of those people voted against me. Taking heat is what happens when you spend political capital.''
That decision brought the Democratic mayor both admiration and scorn.
``He's the first mayor in more than 12 years who addressed the issue of New Bedford having to site a sewer-treatment facility in the city; the others ducked it,'' says Jim Mathes, president of the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce.
``It's politically difficult - he was the right guy at the right time. He believes in open process and public participation. But once he makes a decision he is exceptionally stubborn.''
Ralph Saulnier, a city councillor, puts it differently. ``His idea of compromise is `You listen to me, I'll listen to you, but in the end we'll do it my way,''' he says. Mr. Saulnier is a member of the Save Fort Rodman neighborhood association that is fighting the plan.
The issue came about because the city had been sued by an environmental group and state and federal government agencies for its lack of compliance with the Clean Water Act, which requires secondary treatment of sewage. When Bullard took office, he met with officials to announce a new policy of compliance. Many groups negotiated for two years before coming up with a consent decree laying out an eight-year schedule.
``Consent decrees are difficult to negotiate anytime,'' he says, sitting in his large, sunlit office decorated with pictures of ancestors and ships. ``When you have to do them in the middle of elections, it's even tougher. It really takes a partnership effort.''
In addition to the sewage-treatment plant, New Bedford also is building a coal-fired cogeneration plant and a new landfill, neither of which is popular with voters.
Mayor Bullard presides over a city that has enjoyed tremendous prosperity over the last seven years. The jobless rate, which topped 15.5 percent in 1982, is now around 5.5 percent. He has turned an inherited $2 million deficit into average annual surpluses of $7 million over the last four years.
But the regional economy is declining, the fishing industry is in trouble. Bullard is planning an economic summit to try to keep manufacturing in New Bedford and is fighting to keep state aid flowing in at a time when the Massachusetts State House is making big cuts.
He's begun an innovative employment program targeted at those who most need jobs: people with disabilities, at-risk youths, and displaced workers.
A series of murders of women continues to disturb police and residents, and a sensationally covered 1984 gang rape in a bar is still the one thing many people know about New Bedford, despite the city's being given the National Civic League's All-America Cities award last May. Mayor Bullard says he applied for the award to help give the city a new reputation.
Under his tenure, several dozen early Federal and Greek Revival buildings in the historic waterfront area have been restored. The area is now a nationally recognized landmark district.
Community leaders give him high marks for hiring women and minorities for high administrative posts. After the Women's Center burned, he broke through red tape to help them start rebuilding. When that half-completed project also burned, he repeated the assistance.
``He's very supportive of the issues that affect women and children,'' says Debra Robbin, director of the 16-year-old Women's Center. One way he helps by cooking soup at their annual ``Men Who Cook'' fund raiser.
The city is also home to a number of minorities, including Cape Verdeans and Portuguese.
Former City Councilor Viola Pina found that he is more open to minority interests than predecessors were in the '60s when the city had riots. ``Apparently then, someone wasn't listening. With John Bullard, you wouldn't have that. He's shown he's not afraid to meet with anyone.''
And this year, he's visiting every third-grade class to talk to students about drugs.
He is a board member of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and chairman of the Urban Economic Policy Committee of the US Conference of Mayors.
The Bullard family tree is ripe with public servants. There have been two mayors of New Bedford, a governor, and a US congressman among his relatives. Earlier, one of his ancestors brought the whaling industry over from nearby Nantucket Island.
Leadership today, he says, is much more difficult than the days when small groups of men in Washington, New York, and Boston made all the decisions, he says. ``With TV, it's easier to have direct connection from the citizens to their leaders; therefore more and more people have to be involved in getting support to come to any kind of decision,'' he says. ``It's easier to achieve a state of paralysis.''
What he's proudest of is that in his four years of governing, ``No one has ever suggested that any part of local government is corrupt. You have to be honest - and so does everyone else.''
One of Bullard's ancestors had these words written on his tombstone: ``He loved New Bedford.''
``What I want mine to say is, `He loved New Bedford, too,''' says the mayor. ``That's why I do what I do.''