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John Connolly On Fighting Gun Violence And Being The ‘Education Mayor’

BOSTON — Less than a week before Boston’s preliminary mayoral election, City Councilor John Connolly is in the lead in a new WBUR poll. But his rivals aren’t far behind.

Connolly was born and raised in Roslindale, graduated from Harvard and got a law degree from Boston College. He went on to practice at several Boston firms. He also has experience teaching middle school: three years in Manhattan and one at the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School.

Continuing our series of conversations with the candidates, Connolly joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to discuss the issues and how he views his front-runner status.

John Connolly: I don’t put much stock in the polls especially when I think the leading candidate is someone I haven’t met with the last name “Undecided,” and I think that voters are really looking closely at all 12 candidates. That takes a long time, and I think this is going to be an election that breaks in a few days.

Bob Oakes: Following the Washington Navy Yard shooting this week we’ve all been reminded about how big an issue gun violence is across America and Boston is certainly no exception. We’ve had our fair of it share here. You’ve talked about how community policing and a gun buy-back program will be parts of your plan to tackle the problem. But those alone won’t solve it, so what else?

The WBUR survey suggests City Councilor John Connolly has built a broad cross-section of support. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The WBUR survey suggests City Councilor John Connolly has built a broad cross-section of support. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

I think that we need a holistic plan for a comprehensive safe and healthy Boston initiative. And that means as much about law enforcement, as much about gun violence prevention, talking about how we’re going to deal with recovery, how we’re going to deal with mental health, how we’re going to deal with trauma, and making sure that when people need to get help, we can get them that help.

And right now in Boston if you’re battling addiction there’s no guarantee you can get to a recovery home or facility when you need it. We have resources most cities can only dream of, and we have got to work together to find a better way to leverage resources to everyone in Boston. I want to create an office of recovery services that will focus strictly on trying to expand the recovery infrastructure out there. I also want to connect that to mental health services and to trauma services.

Why make that connection?

When we get under the violence and we try and understand why this is happening, the driver so often is poverty, mental health issues, addiction issues and trauma issues. And that’s really what it is. We’ll look at it this way: the 16-year-old who drops out of a Boston public high school becomes one of the most likely people to end up incarcerated at some point in their life, usually very soon after they drop out. And so we have to recognize the connections between better schools and safer streets, but also those connections between mental health and addiction and safer streets. This is all connected — if we really want to end violence, it’s about a public health approach rather than a law enforcement approach.

We’ve taken a Facebook question from one of our listeners, who says you have been marketing yourself as the education candidate. All the candidates care about education, so specifically, what have you accomplished in the past five years to set yourself apart and earn the title?

I spent six years now, almost, in the City Council making it my main mission to improve Boston Public Schools; four years as chair of the Committee on Education, and at that time I have expanded almost triple the time we spend reviewing the Boston Public School budget. And in that vein, I’ve helped protect funding for programs for children with special needs, autism in particular, protect funding in our budget. I’ve helped to expand funding for English language learners who will soon be the majority of students in the Boston Public Schools. I put a plan on the table to solve our school assignment crisis. I held hearings on the teachers contract, something that had never happened before, where we solicited parent and student input, and how that contract should change. [I] led the effort to try and lengthen the school day in the Boston Public Schools.

That’s all on the resume so to speak — let’s look ahead. You want high schools to partner with a college and an employer and a trade union, so that kids can see examples of what’s ahead. You want to extend learning time among your many forward looking ideas — all very ambitious and some of which may be a little complicated to do. What’s the single most significant simple change that can be made to better improve the lot of Boston students?

It’s to invest more in principal development. All those other pieces matter, but a child needs to walk into a school with a great principal. We need strong school leadership, great principals attract great teachers because teachers want to be in schools where they’re supported. When you have that combination you can get parents fully engaged, and you excite students to learn and they get excited to go to school. So if there is one piece we got to do it’s to invest in a principal pipeline that’s going to train, develop, recruit and retain high quality principals to go into every Boston Public School.

Casinos. The topic is going to come before the Boston City Council next week. You do not favor a citywide vote on the Suffolk Down casino plan. Explain to someone in Hyde Park or Jamaica Plain or Allston why they shouldn’t have a say?

I don’t take any issue with the notion that that casino is going to impact every Bostonian. But the disproportionate impacts will be felt by the people who live in East Boston. And I’ve sat with people for and against the casino in East Boston, and the one thing they all say to me is, “John, we’re going to have to live with this casino in a way that no one else will if it comes here. We’re going to have to bear the brunt of of all good but also all the bad in a way that no one else will. Please let us decide if it should be in our neighborhood.” And I defer to that.

Tom Menino as we know is known for being everywhere, out at community meetings, meeting people all the time. If Tom Menino was the mayor of the people, so to speak, if I asked John Connolly he would be the mayor of?

In a sense I want to be the mayor for all those young families that are counting on our Boston Public Schools, whether they’re living in poverty, or they’re those transplanted young professional families. I want to bind them together in the city and I really want to make sure that we get our schools right. I think it’s critical for every Bostonian. So I want to be the education mayor.

What’s your proudest accomplishment for the city of Boston?

Getting the expired food out of our school classrooms is something I’m very proud of. And some people sort of snicker at that when I talk about it but, here’s the facts: 80 percent of our kids in Boston Public Schools are living in poverty. Many of them are counting on a healthy meal at the Boston Public Schools to be their only healthy meal in a day. And so when I learned that we were serving them food with little or no nutritional value, that has been frozen for over two years at a time, I put a stop to it. I blew the whistle, and I made it better, and I’m proud of boldly standing up for our children. A second piece that goes hand in hand — I was the only one to stand upon the teachers contract and say this was not a contract that put our children first.

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