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Connolly Presses Walsh On Union Ties In Debate

BOSTON — City Councilor At-Large John Connolly jabbed state Rep. Marty Walsh for his union ties in a feisty mayoral debate Tuesday night that put questions of class front-and-center in the campaign.

Connolly repeatedly suggested that Walsh, a longtime labor leader, wouldn’t be tough enough on city unions in contract negotiations.

“It seems like they can’t wait to get you at the table,” he said at one point.

Walsh, if less aggressive, called on Connolly — a lawyer — to reveal his client list.

The forum — the second of three televised debates in the race — came hours before the release of a WBUR poll, showing Connolly clinging to a 41 to 39 percent lead on Walsh.

The survey suggests Connolly has stitched together a coalition of low-income, black voters and more upscale residents — many of them new to the city.

Walsh’s support, by contrast, is rooted in an older Boston — blue-collar voters, many of them residents for decades.

The results track the tenor of the campaign.

Walsh has highlighted his working-class biography in recent weeks: the son of Irish immigrants, he grew up in a triple-decker in Dorchester and battled alcoholism as a young man.

Connolly, a Harvard graduate from a well-known political family, has spent recent days redrawing what he considers a caricature of his upbringing — he was raised in Roslindale, he’s wryly noted, not Beverly Hills.

And he’s renewed his focus on education reform as a means to breaking the cycle of poverty.

The class dynamic took center stage from the start of the WGBH-sponsored debate, when co-moderator Margery Eagan asked about two rounds of mailers — both sent by labor groups — attacking Connolly as a “son of privilege.”

Walsh, who denounced the independently produced fliers when they first appeared, repeated his disavowal — “I don’t do campaigning like that, I never have, I never will,” he said.

But Connolly said the fliers raised a bigger issue.

Walsh, he said, has premised his campaign on the notion that, as a labor leader, “he’s going to be able to get labor leaders to do things they wouldn’t normally do” — like sign contracts good for the city’s bottom line.

And yet, he said, even after Walsh disavowed the first round of mailers, labor sent a second round.

“They’re not listening to you now,” Connolly said. “How do we know they’re going to listen to you when you’re mayor?”

Walsh did not answer the question directly, but said he’s proven he can stand up to unions in the state Legislature.

Eagan and co-moderator Jim Braude then turned to Connolly’s work as a lawyer.

Connolly deflected questions about whether his former law firm was involved in evictions. He said his former partners did legal work for landlords; his own practice, he said, focused on small business development.

Walsh argued that his work as a state legislator and former head of the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella union group, is “an open book.” And he called on Connolly to release his client list.

Connolly faced another difficult moment later in the debate when Braude asked about the $24 million tax break he voted to approve for Liberty Mutual, a company that has come under scrutiny for rich executive pay and benefit cuts for employees.

Connolly argued the break was necessary to keep the company in Boston and noted that Walsh, eager for construction jobs, had pushed for the council to approve the tax break.

Walsh said Connolly had made the right decision on the tax break.

The candidates agreed on several issues. Both said the city must push to reduce gun violence. Both suggested the city should, in some cases, reduce parking requirements for new developments as a way to drive down the costs of housing. And both called for an overhaul of the city’s public schools.

But Connolly pressed to differentiate on education, his signature issue. He said that even if the two candidates’ policy positions overlap, he is more dedicated to change.

Connolly noted his work as a teacher for three years after college and spoke of dropping his daughter off each day at a public school. “This is, for me, my passion,” he said.

But Walsh suggested Connolly’s hard line with the teachers union would be counterproductive. “I’m not drawing a line in the sand,” he said. “That’s not how we get change. We get change by sitting down and having a good, healthy conversation.”

Neither candidate would take a position on the proposed casino at Suffolk Downs — a project in flux after the last-minute withdrawal of a key partner, gambling giant Caesars, ahead of the East Boston vote on the project.

And both fudged, a bit, when asked how they would respond to the age-old practice of placing a chair — or more immovable object — in a shoveled parking space in the winter. Connolly said he would abide by a “24-hour rule,” while Walsh said it would depend on the storm.

They were more definitive about a question inspiring more passion than any other in Boston these days: whither the Red Sox in the upcoming World Series?

Both predicted a victory in the best-of-seven series with the St. Louis Cardinals. Connolly said it would be a four-game sweep. Walsh said it would go six games.

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