BOSTON — The 12 candidates for mayor of Boston met in their first televised debate Monday night.
They talked about everything from which schools their children attend to who can best negotiate new contracts with the city’s unions.
Any candidate is going to have a tough time breaking through a field of 12, even when the debate is 90 minutes long. But several of the candidates did make themselves heard.
Sometimes it was because they were asked a direct question, as when Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley had to defend why he sent his children to Catholic schools and not to the Boston Public Schools.
“In their early years, I wanted them to get more of a religious and character education that is not available,” Conley said.
At-Large City Councilor John Connolly, a former teacher who does send his children to the city’s public schools and who has made improving education his top issue, jumped in to defend Conley.
“I just want to say I don’t think it’s a legitimate question to ask Dan Conley,” Connolly said. “I know if Dan Conley’s mayor, he’s going to do everything he can to make the Boston Public Schools work. It’s a deeply personal decision for people about where they send their children to school.”
For At-Large City Councilor Felix Arroyo, the only Latino candidate in the race, the issue of schools provided an opportunity for him to reach out to people in Spanish.
“Fifty percent of the students in our public schools speak a language other than English at home and deserve a good education,” Arroyo said.
Boston’s next mayor will have to negotiate union contracts with the city’s employees. At times, Mayor Thomas Menino has found that to be a long, frustrating and expensive process.
One of the forum’s moderators, Joe Battenfeld of the Boston Herald, wanted to know if state Rep. Marty Walsh, a union leader himself, would be tough enough in labor negotiations. Codman Square Health Center founder Bill Walczak said Walsh would not be up to the job, but Walsh defended himself.
“We’re negotiating the police contract and the next mayor of Boston is going to be faced with a $200 million back pay that we have to pay for the contract that wasn’t settled at the table,” Walsh said. “I am the person that can negotiate with unions to make sure we get the agreement before we go to arbitration.”
Defending And Disagreeing
With two weeks to go before the Sept. 24 preliminary election narrows the candidates from 12 to two, many people are just beginning to pay attention. And the candidates are still explaining things such as why they left their last job. That’s what happened to Walczak when Battenfeld asked him why he left Carney Hospital, where he was president.
“I had a philosophical difference with the Steward Corporation about the development of the family medicine program and whether it should have obstetrics as a major component,” Walczak said. “I didn’t think that I could achieve my goals at the Carney Hospital unless I was able to develop family medicine with obstetrics, and so we had a parting of the ways and that’s the official way in which this came about.”
Walczak explained that he could not disclose the conditions of his severance package.
First Walsh, then former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative head John Barros jumped in to defend Walczak.
“Bill did a great job at Carney Hospital and I know there’s a difference of opinion there and I know he can’t disclose it and we were sad to see him go, because he was a great president of the hospital and was really doing some good things turning things around,” Walsh said.
“There are some agreements you make once you are signing a severance package, and one of them is you can’t talk about it,” Barros said.
The testiest moment came when the candidates were asked about crime. Conley was defending his record as district attorney when radio station owner Charles Clemons challenged him.
“Shootings are down 35 percent in the last six years,” Conley announced.
“Shootings are down?” Clemons asked, incredulous. “[There have been] 128 shootings since the Boston Marathon [bombings.]”
“You don’t talk over me at over forums,” Conley told Clemons. “How about not tonight, OK?”
Things got heated again when Connolly promised to cut waste in the Boston Public Schools administration, and Barros, a former member of the School Committee, defended the administration.
“You haven’t turned around a school,” Barros said. “You don’t know what it means to turn around a school. I’ve helped to turn around an Orchard Garden pilot school, and we need a mayor with experience.”
Twelve candidates, 12 different experiences and not much time now for each of them to talk about why his or her experience is the right one for Boston.