In struggling mill city, 24-year-old mayor seeks turnaround
FALL RIVER, Mass. (AP) — Jasiel Correia is 24 years old, the maker of a smartphone app, a former shoe salesman — and this hard-luck former manufacturing hub’s third mayor in 13 months.
Two weeks into his term, Correia is tackling the economic malaise that has depressed this waterfront city for decades. Also on his agenda is dumping the city’s meek motto: “We’ll try.”
“It’s on our seal somewhere,” said Correia, a Democrat. “We’ve got to change that.”
New York state welcomed its youngest mayor this month in 25-year-old Republican Billy Barlow in Oswego. Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, elected 23-year-old Democrat Erik Larson. Other young mayors have matured into incumbency, such as Republican Erin Stewart, elected at 26 in New Britain, Connecticut, and now in her second term.
But no one as young as Correia (whose name is pronounced JAY’-zil koh-RAY’-uh) has been elected to run a city as big as Fall River, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Correia will be in the company of hundreds of other urban mayors, along with President Barack Obama, when the conference holds its winter gathering this week in Washington.
The population of Fall River, a longtime immigrant destination, dropped from a high of more than 120,000 to fewer than 89,000 over the past century along with the decline of the textile industry. It’s better known as the site of the 1892 ax killings of which Lizzie Borden — later immortalized in a macabre nursery rhyme — was acquitted.
Correia embodies the story many residents would rather tell about the enterprising spirit of a place where celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse was born and learned how to cook.
The son of immigrants from Cape Verde and Portugal’s Azores islands, Correia grew up in a tenement near a street lined with Portuguese bakeries that slopes down to Mount Hope Bay.
It used to be that “if you made it in Fall River, you went out to Somerset,” Correia said, pointing from his new office in city hall to the suburbs on the other side of the bay.
His parents contemplated such a move when he was in middle school, said his mother, Maria Correia. But her son — a compelling public speaker already steeped in an anti-drug coalition and other community activism — resisted.
“He told us, ‘Mom and Dad, you can’t move out of Fall River, because I want to be mayor,’” she said.
Voters elected Correia to the city council when he was 21. He attended meetings between studying political science and marketing at Providence College and founding a business promotions app called SnoOwl, which employs about five people in an old mill.
Then came a period of tumultuous politics. He told the police chief that Mayor Will Flanagan, a former ally, intimidated him with a gun during a late-night meeting over Correia’s support of a mayoral recall petition. A special prosecutor’s investigation did not lead to charges, but Flanagan’s plummeting popularity helped a former district attorney, Sam Sutter, oust him in a 2014 recall election.
Sutter and Correia, both Democrats, duked it out in the November 2015 general election, which Correia won over the better-funded incumbent with 52 percent of the vote. Correia has touted an optimistic platform centered on urban reinvestment, capitalizing on cheap rents and proposed business incentives to draw back millennials and empty-nesters who share his love of walkable city living.
Sutter, 63, said it was the $10 monthly trash fee he imposed to fill a budget hole that cost him the election. Correia has promised to repeal the unpopular fee, but Sutter is skeptical.
“This particular 24-year-old has not run an organization,” Sutter said. “That’s going to be the issue. The lack of experience, not necessarily the age.”
Dave Lavoie, city hall’s chief custodian, said he has high hopes for his new boss, who is half his age.
“I think the kid’ll be all right if he gets the right people behind him,” said Lavoie, who has now worked for nine mayors.
Voters have been giving a chance to youngsters they see as “energetic, innovative, trying to do new things,” often in cities seeking a jolt of change, said John Celock, author of “The Next Generation,” a book about young elected officials.
“People in the first year were referencing me as the kid, citing my inexperience,” said James Diossa, elected mayor of nearby Central Falls, Rhode Island, at age 26 while his city was emerging from bankruptcy and his predecessor was battling corruption charges. “I knew I had to work twice as hard to get the job done.”