Boston mayoral candidates Marty Walsh and John Connolly met in their first debate Tuesday and discussed issues to a draw. No surprise. There’s little that separates them on matters of policy. Rep. Walsh did what he had to in proving himself engaged and comfortable on education. Councillor Connolly, who has claimed ownership of that issue, did what he had to do in showing breadth beyond education, notably on fiscal issues. Without disparaging either, it was close to tweedle dum and tweedle dee.
The differences between the two are matters of style and, let’s call it what it is, class. Connolly appears somewhat more cerebral, Harvard-educated, an attorney, the son of a longtime statewide official and respected judge, a young man who has grown up lacking nothing. Walsh grew up the son of immigrants, survived childhood cancer, was a laborer and union official, and is a recovering addict. His is a story of struggle. In a sense, this race could be cast as the haves versus the have nots.
Connolly’s edge has seemed to be around Walsh’s fealty to the labor movement, and Connolly has appropriately questioned whether Boston can afford a mayor so tied to the unions. Could Walsh stand up to excessive contract demands, especially since he filed legislation on Beacon Hill to submit disputes to binding arbitration, taking away the City Council’s right to vote on an arbitration decision?
Yesterday Walsh discussed these issues with members of the business community, a group made up of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, A Better City, and The Boston Foundation. Walsh was far more persuasive about his ability to represent Boston fiscal concerns than he is portrayed in the media or even through his own sound bites. Nor is he as stiff in person as he has seemed in television interviews or candidate forums. He seems more believable in talking about his ability to keep negotiations from moving to arbitration in the first place. He has, he noted, shown that capacity in working out project labor agreements on big construction developments. His instinctive concern is “to support a working class,” but he avers that his overall responsibility is to the taxpayers and “you can’t give the store away.”
Nor is he reflexively against tax breaks for business, which, under the right circumstances, “can be a good incentive.” Certain real estate developments, Walsh said, have generated business through an appropriate use of tax incentives. The point is that the candidate’s position seems more nuanced than anyone has yet portrayed in the press.
If indeed this is a race between the haves and have nots, the problem is that neither end goes to the polls in local elections. New York Times readers in the Back Bay and on Beacon Hill tend to turn out more for national elections. And the disadvantaged in Roxbury and Mattapan don’t turn out for a whole other set of reasons. A key question is whether Connolly or Walsh can better serve the entire city. My hope is that preoccupation with the World Series won’t distract voters from this mayoral race featuring two strong candidates, both of whom deserve serious consideration.
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