BOSTON — With just five days until voters narrow the field of mayoral hopefuls from 12 to two in the preliminary election, the candidates clashed on a proposed Suffolk Downs casino at a WBUR/Boston Foundation/UMass Boston forum Thursday night. (Miss it? Listen here.)
Codman Square Health Center founder Bill Walczak, who has put opposition to the casino at the center of his campaign, warned that slots and poker tables would have far-reaching effects on the city.
“This is going to change the culture of Boston forever,” he said, at one point.
But City Councilor Mike Ross lashed out at Walczak, saying that even if he blocked gaming in East Boston, he could do little to stop a casino from sprouting just “seven feet” from the city line — referring to competing plans for a casino in Everett.
The back-and-forth came as a series of polls show a city closely divided on the question. A new WBUR survey, released Thursday morning, found 47 percent in favor of the casino and 44 percent opposed.
The exchange, which also pulled in Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, marked a moment of tension in a largely polite exchange at the glassy UMass-Boston Campus Center.
Placidity has been a recurring theme in the Boston mayor’s race, setting the contest apart from recent, rancorous battles in cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Last month, several of the candidates engaged in a spontaneous game of pick-up basketball.
The relatively collegial tone held up Thursday night, even as the race enters the home stretch with a gaggle of four candidates — City Councilor John Connolly, state Rep. Marty Walsh, former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie and Conley — consistently appearing at the top of tight polls.
Walczak made an attempt to draw out two of them, calling on Conley and Connolly — who have called themselves agnostic on the casino — to state a position on the question, soon to go to voters.
“The citizens of Boston don’t want to be told what to think,” replied Conley, though he suggested that he is personally opposed.
Conley also argued that the entire city, and not just East Boston, should have the opportunity to vote on the proposed casino.
Connolly said East Boston voters alone should decide the casino’s fate, since they will be most affected by the project.
He did not discuss his own views on the casino. But he said he was concerned about “vague” legislative language on the benefits for casino host communities and reports of unrealistic financial projections for the Suffolk Down proposal.
Connolly said he would be pressing for answers at a City Council committee hearing Friday.
The candidates also split on whether they would retain Police Commissioner Edward Davis. Walczak, Conley and City Councilor Felix Arroyo said they would keep him.
Golar Richie, Walsh, Connolly, City Councilor Mike Ross and former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative executive director John Barros said they were undecided or would engage in a review before making a decision.
Two candidates — City Councilor Charles Yancey and TOUCH 106.1 FM co-founder Charles Clemons, a former police officer — said they would drop Davis.
City Councilor Rob Consalvo and the lone Republican in the race, David Wyatt, did not attend the forum.
The two-hour confab, the last major gathering of the candidates before the preliminary election Sept. 24, touched on a wide range of issues — from public transit, to affordable housing, to education.
Connolly, who has made education his signature issue, said the city needs to decentralize the school system and give more power to principals. Flexibility, he said, is key to turning around failing schools.
He cited the Trotter Elementary School, attended by his oldest daughter, which has gone from one of the worst schools in the state to one of the best.
Conley, the district attorney, also placed an emphasis on decentralization, while Arroyo said tackling poverty is the key to improving student performance.
When it came to affordable housing, Walczak suggested the city should consider prefabricated housing as a way to cut costs.
Golar Richie, who once served as a housing official in the administration of Mayor Thomas Menino, said it was important to focus on preserving the current stock of affordable housing — as well as producing new affordable units.
The candidates, for the most part, laid out positions they’ve repeated time and time again at dozens of forums this summer and fall. And the hopefuls all know their rivals’ talking points by now.
During a discussion about crime, Barros said he was surprised that Walsh hadn’t mentioned better care for addicts in lieu of arrest.
So, Barros said, he would mention the idea for him.
There were some lighter moments in the forum. Asked to name their favorite Boston sports moment, Walsh mentioned his Little League team’s championship, followed by a dunk in Dorchester Bay.
Connolly mentioned a Super Bowl game-winning field goal by former New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. He said he was in the stands and “cried like a baby.”
WBUR Morning Edition host Bob Oakes, who moderated with the station’s Radio Boston co-host Meghna Chakrabarti, told the contenders they’d all offered good answers but were wrong.
The correct answer, he said, is next month’s Red Sox World Series victory.