October 30, 2013

WGBH News reporter Adam Reilly and contributing editor Peter Kadzis on the third and final debate between Boston mayoral candidates John Connolly and Marty Walsh.

KADZIS: Last night's final Boston mayoral debate between John Connolly and Marty Walsh left me with three over-arching impressions:

1) Walsh put in his strongest performance yet, but Connolly still won because of a greater command of details, especially the punch lists he provided for what he's looking for in a Police Commissioner and a School Superintendent.

2) At this point, I doubt the debate will change many voter's minds, but it will influence journalists and political commentators, which might have impact.

3) It's clear that both candidates see the key to winning this election as two-fold, holding on to their respective bases while carrying communities that compromise the city's majority-minority neighborhoods -- particularly those of African Americans. Still, my eyebrows popped when Connolly and Walsh agreed that the police department was tinged with racism. I agree there are problems, but I thought the allegation of racism went too far. Perhaps I'm oversensitive. I cut my teeth as a young reporter during the busing years and saw real, unvarnished, overt racism in action. God knows, both the police and fire departments have serious diversity issues (as do the trade unions), but they are too complex to be boiled down to a single word.

REILLY: If I remember correctly, Connolly and Walsh both went even further on the racism issue. I think they agreed racism can be found throughout Boston as a city--not that it's ubiquitous, but that it manifests itself in all sectors of life, not just in, say, the Boston Police Department and Boston Fire Department. That assertion garnered a lot of attention on Twitter in real time, and I'm sure we're going to hear more about it in the days ahead. The key, I think, is that Connolly and Walsh both seemed to be speaking about institutional racism, i.e., entrenched structures and habits (like hiring in the BPD) that privilege whites and hurt other groups. As someone who didn't grow up in Boston and wasn't here in the 1970s, I actually had a totally different reaction. Basically, "Wow, both candidates for mayor are talking about how institutional racism is still a problem around the city. Look how far Boston's come!"

As for the stuff they didn't agree on, I'll be blunt: I am so, so tired of hearing about how Marty Walsh is in the pocket of the unions and John Connolly is an evil lawyer. These candidates agree on so much that that's basically what the race has come down to--that, and complaints about negative campaigning. Now, having said that, I also want to note that Walsh's union ties and Connolly's legal background really aren't equivalent topics. One of them has massive policy implications for the city of Boston: if Marty Walsh is elected mayor and can't get tough with unions when he needs to, the city's finances could be ravaged as a result. As far as I can tell, though, Connolly's legal background doesn't have any clear implications for how he'd govern. Instead, it's about whether the narrative he's crafted around his candidacy (calling education his "life's work," for example) is honest or not. As I wrote recently, I think Connolly's guilty of rewriting his bio to fit his campaign. But I don't think Walsh has successfully argued, at any point, that Connolly's lawyerin' years should have voters quaking in their boots.

Now that that's off my chest: I say Connolly won tonight, both because he's more adept when it comes to detailed discussions of policy and because Walsh didn't have a good response when Connolly pressed him--for the umpteenth time this campaign--on his union allegiances. As you say, though, any impact this has in the campaign's final days is likely to be limited and indirect.

KADZIS: I watched the debate with Emily Rooney on the news set, so I didn't have access to Twitter and now I wish I did. Social media has become an important contextualizer for all political debates, hasn't it? At least for the junkies among us.

Perhaps I did take the discussion of racism too narrowly. I can see a more expansive interpretation -- as you suggest. In the nation as a whole, however, I think a view rooted in economics is more useful. And by that measure, non-whites do indeed get whacked more negatively.

The union issue itself is not simple. Not all unions are created equal. The blue-collar industrial unions have suffered declines since Taft-Hartley and as a result of globalization, automation, and the rise of the knowledge-based economy. This is a major contribution to the income disparities that afflict America. Public employee unions, on the other hand, have enjoyed a privileged existence. That's certainly the case in Boston. For example, the deal the arbitrator awarded the police union is a pay and benefit package that would be all but impossible to match in the private sector. And private sector employees make up the bulk of Boston's electorate. It's a paradox. An uncomfortable one.

Walsh pointed out that only 20 percent of Bostonians can afford to own their own home. The political implications of this are far reaching and -- curiously -- may prove to be a political benefit to Walsh. That's because homeowners are more sensitive to the prospects of an increase in property taxes. And as far as big cities go, Boston is unusually dependent on property tax revenues for its operating budget. Home owners see the link between generous municipal union pay packages more directly than renters. Although renters might suffer more if landlords saw a tax increase as a reason to further hike already punishing rents.

Someone has to pay for higher than market rate contract awards. Restrictive union work rules stand in the way of making the productivity gains that might mitigate some of the impact. The political class, which has lined up lock, stock, and barrel behind Walsh, seems to think that, if they don't recognize these facts, the problem will go away. It won't.

REILLY: Two other things really struck me tonight. First, there was the delicate dance that both Walsh and Connolly executed on the casino at Suffolk Downs. Neither candidate wanted to come across as telling East Boston residents how to vote, but Walsh strongly suggested that the existing non-casino jobs at Suffolk Downs need to be saved somehow--and also said that, if a casino on his block were approved by voters in his neighborhood, he'd be all for it. In contrast, Connolly said he wouldn't want to see a casino next to his home in West Roxbury--but gamely resisted debate host RD Sahl's repeated attempts to get him to say a casino is a bad idea for East Boston. So here's my question: for anti-casino voters, who seem to be a pretty motivated bunch, might Connolly's slightly negative take on a casino this evening be enough to make him their candidate of choice? (Instant response to myself: Bill Walczak tried to build his mayoral campaign around being a strong anti-casino voice, and it didn't work out too hot.)

Point number two: listening to Connolly and Walsh talk about charter schools and their place in the Boston public-education ecosystem tonight, it was nigh impossible to identify a significant point of disagreement between the two candidates. Yet Connolly seems to be the candidate who's been identified as the nefarious would-be privatizer of the Boston Public Schools. Meanwhile, Walsh--for reasons I still haven't figured out--doesn't seem to face nearly the sort of backlash that Connolly's been getting for months. Why is that, exactly?

KADZIS: The answer to your question is simple. There is a double standard.

As for the casino, I see it as a largely settled issue. I don't know how East Boston will vote on corporate gambling in its neighborhood. But however it does decide, Connolly seems to have already achieved political dominance in that neighborhood. We'll just have to wait until next Tuesday to find out.

Related: See WGBH News' full coverage on the Boston mayoral race

Bospoli, Mayor, Boston Mayor 2013, Boston

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