BOSTON — Unable to distinguish themselves on the issues, City Councilor John Connolly and state Rep. Marty Walsh turned to biography Tuesday night in their first one-on-one Boston mayoral debate.
Connolly focused on his three years as a teacher, working with children facing the “daunting achievement gap” separating white students from black and Latino students.
“That experience stays with you,” he said. “You take all of those students’ hopes and dreams with you everyday to work in City Hall.”
Walsh focused on his blue-collar upbringing in Dorchester and his early struggles — suggesting it gave him a window onto the travails of the least fortunate.
“As a young kid, I overcame cancer,” he said. “As a young adult, I overcame alcoholism. It’s kind of shaped me, who I am today.”
The debate, sponsored by WBZ and The Boston Globe, faced stiff competition for the city’s attention, with the Red Sox locked in a tense playoff battle with the Detroit Tigers.
Even the reporters on hand to cover the debate were stealing glances at the game, aired on another television station.
Education was a significant issue. And that played into the hands of Connolly, who has made the schools his signature issue.
He spoke fluidly on policy and trotted out his pitch for a major shakeup of the district headquarters.
“We need to make deep cuts to that bureaucracy,” he said. “I know it inside-out. I know where to go to make those cuts. And I will push that money down to the school site level so we can build schools from the bottom up.”
But Walsh made a similar call for decentralizing the school system. And the candidates overlapped in several other areas.
Both pledged to bring greater diversity in the leadership ranks of the police department and to push for more robust public transportation. And both offered high praise to outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino, who leaves an enormously popular figure.
“One of the traits that I have that Mayor Menino has is the ability to go out in every neighborhood and work extremely hard,” said Walsh. “Tom Menino has the pulse of the city.”
There weren’t too many flash points in the debate. But Connolly was the more aggressive figure.
Connolly commended Walsh for voting for a major education reform bill in 2010. But he said his opponent had never filed major schools legislation of his own — to address the achievement gap or see to the needs of disabled students — on Beacon Hill.
“These are all new issues for Representative Walsh,” he said.
Walsh defended his education bona fides, pointing to increased state funding for Boston schools and his position as a founding board member of a charter school.
Connolly went on the offensive again later, taking Walsh to task for legislation he’s filed that would make arbitration in labor disputes final — stripping city councils of the power to veto arbitration awards they deem too rich.
Walsh, a longtime labor leader, said his ties to union leaders meant that he’d be able to successfully negotiate contracts, obviating the need for arbitration.
But that wasn’t the end of the tussle over labor and city finances.
Connolly also hit Walsh for $1.2 million in outside spending on television ads, mailers and canvassing — some substantial portion of it from labor.
“I’m just concerned that when your campaign is taking over $1 million in outside money and when you also work in two roles for these unions, that will influence what you do when you’re mayor,” Connolly said.
The attack came at the end of a lengthy exchange and Walsh brushed it aside, saying he had “no comment.”
Walsh tried to emphasize homeownership in low-income neighborhoods and economic development in a city that, he said, had not done enough to develop industry.
“We need to create more opportunities,” he said.
The one-on-one, hour-long debate marked a sharp departure from the 12-way forums that defined the preliminary stage of the mayoral election this summer.
Brief bites gave way to lengthier policy pronouncements.
But the relative comity of the first round stayed largely intact — punctuated only briefly by Connolly’s critique of his opponent.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said he was surprised that Walsh did not aggressively counterpunch.
But Walsh adviser Michael Goldman suggested afterward that the candidate did not want to turn off voters just tuning into the race.
Whether by design or not, the candidates engaged in a debate unlikely to change the contours of the race “in any significant way,” Ubertaccio said.