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Connolly, Walsh Clash On Negative Campaigning

Boston mayoral candidates Marty Walsh, left, and John Connolly, in their final televised debate. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

Boston mayoral candidates Marty Walsh, left, and John Connolly, in their final televised debate. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

BOSTON — City Councilor At-Large John Connolly and state Rep. Marty Walsh clashed over negative advertising and carved out stylistic differences in their final televised debate in the Boston mayoral race Tuesday night.

Connolly, of West Roxbury, took umbrage at the start of the forum with fliers sent by a labor group dubbing him a “son of privilege.”

“We had tens of thousands of fliers go out which savagely attacked me and my family, put my entire background into question and were filled with lies,” he said.

Walsh has repeatedly disavowed the attacks. And he did so again Tuesday night. But Connolly said Walsh opened the door to a negative campaign by refusing to sign a “People’s Pledge” designed to keep outside money at bay.

Connolly also resurrected an argument from the last debate. Walsh, a longtime labor leader, has premised his candidacy on the notion that he can get unions to do what he’d like, he said. But if they wouldn’t listen to his pleas to stop the negative campaigning, Connolly asked, “how are they going to listen to him when he’s mayor?”

Walsh countered that the labor group did eventually stand down. And he attacked Connolly for financing a so-called “push poll,” designed to spread disparaging information about a candidate in the guise of a standard survey.

“It’s a complete fabrication,” Connolly replied. “There was no push poll or negative attack on Rep. Walsh.”

After the debate, Connolly declined to detail the specifics of the poll, saying he wouldn’t talk about campaign strategy. But he said “clearly, 1,000 percent, there was no push poll.”

The back-and-forth on negative campaigning came amid an increasingly intense — and increasingly tight — race.

A recent Boston Globe survey put Connolly up a solid eight points on Walsh. But that poll seems to be an outlier. Other surveys, including a WBUR poll, show an ever-closer race. And both sides now call it deadlocked with just a week until Election Day.

The campaign has exposed little in the way of policy differences between the candidates. But it has pointed to differences in style and emphasis — particularly when it comes to education.

Connolly has suggested that he wants a fundamental shake-up of city schools. And on Tuesday night, he returned to the theme, saying he wants a “nontraditional” superintendent of schools who will tackle the “dysfunction” in the school system, rather than merely work around it.

Connolly added that he wants to “thin” the school district’s bureaucracy and push power and resources down to the school-site level.

Walsh, by contrast, said he wants a superintendent who is a “good listener” and collaborator. Too often, he said, “there is a line drawn in the sand, where the teachers’ voice isn’t heard.”

His answer underlined a broader message.

Walsh has frequently suggested that Connolly is too confrontational. And he’s suggested his own ties to labor will allow for a more productive relationship with teachers and other city workers.

On the issues, the candidates broke little new ground at the debate. They both called for more robust support for small business. And they both repeated longstanding calls for greater diversity in the police department.

City Councilor John Connolly answers questions after the debate. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

City Councilor John Connolly answers questions after the debate. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

But moderator R.D. Sahl did draw out the candidates on one issue they have danced around for much of the campaign — a proposed casino at the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston.

Both candidates have repeatedly said the decision on whether to build a casino is up to the voters of East Boston, who will cast ballots on the day of the mayoral election, Nov. 5.

But Walsh said Tuesday night that a casino “certainly creates jobs and opportunities for folks to be able to raise a family.” And when pressed, he said he would vote for the project if he were a resident of the neighborhood.

Connolly declined to say what he would do if he were a resident of East Boston. “I don’t live in East Boston and I want to let the people of East Boston decide,” he said.

But he added that he is “deeply troubled” by the last-minute departure of gambling giant Caesars as a partner in the venture and said that would “inform” his judgment if he was voting on the matter.

The first half of the debate, hosted by WHDH-TV and sponsored by a consortium of media organizations including WBUR, played out on turf favorable to Connolly.

Questions about education, his signature issue, allowed him to flash his knowledge of policy details. And questions about unions and labor law allowed him to renew his criticism of Walsh for his union ties.

As in the last debate, Connolly took on Walsh for filing legislation that would strip city councils of the power to veto arbitration awards in public contract disputes.

“It’s a really bad idea,” he said of the legislation.

The bill became a campaign issue when an arbitrator’s ruling called for a police salary hike amounting to 25.4 percent over six years — an award both candidates said was too rich.

Walsh said the city never should have allowed negotiations over the police contract — and a firefighters contract from three years ago — to reach arbitration. And he suggested his relationship with labor would create trust and allow him to craft deals before negotiations landed in arbitration.

When necessary, he added, he can stand up to unions. But his ties to labor, he said, are a source of pride.

“My father was a laborer,” he said. “My father worked with his hands every day — and his back.” Walsh said when he was stricken with cancer as a boy, his father’s union provided vital help.

The story fit a broader narrative Walsh has emphasized in the debates and throughout the campaign — a narrative focused on his blue-collar roots.

Walsh spoke Tuesday night of growing up in a three-family house in Dorchester and battling alcoholism as a young man.

And while he did not draw an explicit contrast with Connolly, who grew up in a middle-class enclave in Roslindale and attended Harvard University, he did say at one point in the debate that Boston doesn’t need “another lawyer” in City Hall.

State Rep. Marty Walsh answers questions after the debate. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

State Rep. Marty Walsh answers questions after the debate. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

Connolly, who is a lawyer, deflected a question about the class dynamic in the race — focusing on his three-year stint as a teacher in urban schools in New York and Boston.

Toward the end of the forum, the candidates had the opportunity to question each other — producing some sharp exchanges.

Walsh asked Connolly to pledge that he would not run negative television commercials in the final days of the campaign. Connolly said his advertisements would not stray from what he has said in public — and to Walsh directly.

That seemed to leave the door open for spots that would criticize Walsh on issues like his ties to labor.

Connolly asked Walsh why he didn’t hold a public hearing as chairman of the Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Ethics Committee in 2010 and 2011. Walsh did not address the question head on — saying he could not, by law, discuss any cases that came before the committee.

He said that there would only be a report from the committee if it reached a final determination on a case.

The debate, which included a handful of videotaped questions from Boston residents, touched on a series of issues — from diversity in the building trades unions, to the fate of Faneuil Hall, to the environment.

A year after Boston narrowly missed major damage from Hurricane Sandy, Connolly said the city needs to do more on emergency preparedness and cut down on carbon emissions.

Walsh talked of expanding the work of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a group of business, nonprofit and civic leaders convened to develop a strategy for combating climate change.

Asked whether there is racism in the police department, neither candidate answered directly — saying, instead, that there is racism throughout Boston that needs to be addressed.

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