Three candidates took the stage in a mayoral debate in Fall River on Friday night that quickly turned personal between the incumbent mayor and the city council president running against him. 

The debate, held upstairs from a crowded dining room at the Azorean Cultural Society, was conducted in English and Portuguese — an arrangement the moderator, Frank Baptiste, said is a political courtesy in this corner of Massachusetts.Candidates for mayor were asked to bring their own translators.

Mayor Paul Coogan opened the debate by defending his record on crime during a tumultuous year of protests against police brutality. 

“Right now, in this country, there’s a whole movement to defund the police and police are looked down on. In Fall River, we’re not doing that,” Coogan said. “Our property and casualty crimes have all gone down this year. We need more police on the streets. We need more people in leadership positions. We need more cameras.”

City Council President Cliff Ponte offered an opposing view on public safety.

“I don’t know if you’ve spoken to a police officer lately, Mr. Mayor,” Ponte said, “because they’re burnt out. And they’re not feeling supported.”

Ponte, the owner of a diner and the founder of a real estate brokerage that specializes in foreclosed property, has campaigned on promises to lower taxes and make the city friendlier to business owners. 

“I’ve articulated very important plans, like making sure that the streets in this community are clean and safe,” Ponte said. “When you drive into Fall River, for the longest time this summer, we saw grass that was up to your hips.”

Coogan his own retorts ready. He took aim at Ponte for threatening to explore litigation against the city after the council, under Ponte’s leadership, missed a deadline to revise the city budget earlier this summer. 

Coogan also brought up a leaked memo from Ponte’s real estate brokerage in which he promised to keep managing the business full time even if he was elected mayor. 

“His own words say the position of mayor in Fall River is without a doubt a ceremonial position,” Coogan said. 

A third candidate, a political newcomer named Jonathan Albernaz, promised to roll back the vaccine and masking mandates that some branches of government have put in place during the pandemic. 

“I just want to remind you all that each and every one of you are individuals. You are all free people,” Albernaz said in his closing remarks. “You do not need the government to dictate what you can and cannot do.”

The debate reached its climax when Ponte, feeding off the small crowd’s first applause of the night, tried to stretch the debate past its scheduled end at 7:30 p.m.

“Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, you actually called today to try to cancel this debate and you wanted to move it to next week,” Ponte said. “I will sit here until eight o’clock. If everybody else leaves, that’s fine.”

The primary election is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 21. The two highest-ranking candidates will compete again in a general election in November. 

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org.