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Challengers Fail To Knock Menino Off His Game04:09
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The three challengers to Mayor Thomas Menino had their first opportunity to take the mayor on in a debate broadcast on WBZ. The debate was spirited and it focused on issues: it touched on corruption, taxes, schools and crime.

Each of the mayor's three challengers wanted to leave his mark in order to have a chance to be one of two candidates to win the preliminary election on Sept. 22. They took him on throughout the debate, none more so than City Councilor Sam Yoon. During one exchange on crime, Yoon cited Boston's strong-mayor system as part of the problem.

"To solve problems like the problems of violence on our streets," Yoon said, "it's going to require giving up some power, and in fact sharing it with communities, with the DA's office, and to work with collaborative methods that will really solve the problem — and it comes down to prevention."

Mayor Menino replied that prevention is exactly what the city's been focusing on.

"We have the VIP program," Menino said, "which is a group of individuals going door to door in neighborhoods of our city — in the most troubled neighborhoods --  seeing what the needs of those individuals were there. Families who had kids under 18 years old, working to see how we can help those families, what their needs were."

South End contractor Kevin McCrea challenged the mayor on the high-school dropout rate and property taxes.

"The mayor likes to say that we have a low tax rate," McCrea said. "It's not true. Boston's tax rate is 40 percent higher than just across the river in Cambridge, and just across the river in Cambridge, in their high school, their dropout rate is one-fifth, one-fifth of what it is in Boston. So we are really failing on those issues."

The mayor pointed out to the moderator, WBZ's John Keller, that he did not get a chance to rebut.

"What about my 10 seconds?" he asked.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty criticized the mayor for the size of city government.

"This administration has actually grown city government," Flaherty said. "I intend as mayor to make government smaller. We need to do, again, performance review.  Literally department by department, identify which programs are working, which ones are no longer providing vital services for our residents, talk about elimination and consolidation."

In response to similar criticism from Sam Yoon about city government getting too big, the mayor said he had hired teachers, police officers and firefighters.

Kevin McCrea accused the mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority of corruption.

"Just back on June 20," McCrea said, "a City Hall worker, someone that worked at the BRA, James Rourke, gave the mayor a $200 campaign contribution. Ten days later, the mayor sold Mr. Rourke a piece of city property assessed at $100,000 for a mere $5,000."

"Kevin, that's nonsense," the mayor replied. "You know that, and my record shows it. Mr. Rourke got a piece of property, bought a lot. We have that program in the city of Boston, land next to a person's home. We don't want to maintain that lot, so we sell it to the abutter next door."

The mayor also took a lot of criticism on the dropout rate in the Boston Public Schools from both Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon.

"Mr. Mayor," Yoon said, "you're fond of saying that this election is about our future, not about our past, and right now we don't have the world-class system of public education that we deserve. In fact, 40 percent of ninth graders right now in the Boston Public Schools will not graduate with their class."

"24,000 kids," Flaherty said, "that's 24,000 kids have dropped out over the last 16 years. You could fill overflow TD Banknorth Garden, and if you ask where are those kids today, many of them probably unemployed, several of them probably incarcerated, and several are probably parents of Boston Public Schools kids themselves."

The mayor responded that the dropout rate has fallen by 30 percent since he's been mayor. Throughout the debate, he was seen looking down at his notes. But if the mayor might not have been the most spontaneous debater, at no point was he thrown off balance.

His challengers will have one more chance in next week's debate to change the dynamics of the race before the preliminary election now less than three weeks away.

This program aired on September 3, 2009.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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