Leveraging deep roots in city politics and strong voter turnout operations, state Rep. Martin Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly took the top two spots in the preliminary mayoral election Tuesday.
The pair will face off in the final election Nov. 5, when voters elect Boston's first new mayor in 20 years.
"This is...a race about who we are, about values — about whether Boston will be a city for all its people, in every neighborhood, not just some," Walsh said to cheering supporters at the Venezia Boston restaurant in Dorchester.
Connolly, speaking to a large crowd at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, embraced the city's diversity.
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"From day one, the strength of this campaign was found across every neighborhood, every race, every ethnicity, every language and every walk of life," he said.
Both speeches marked attempts to reach out to an increasingly diverse and ideologically liberal electorate. But the hopefuls approach the task with distinct profiles.
Walsh, a former union leader, has cast himself as a champion of blue-collar Boston, while Connolly has positioned himself as a leader for a city in transition: promising sweeping education reform, a greener city and a City Hall that runs more like the Apple store.
Walsh took 18 percent of the vote in the 12-way preliminary. Connolly had 17 percent. Former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, the only woman in the race, finished third with 14 percent and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley claimed 11 percent.
The voting capped months of door knocking, phone calls and appearances at a seemingly endless parade of mayoral forums.
The candidates tussled over charter schools, a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs and the appointment of the next police chief.
The tone was remarkably civil and the debate often substantive. But the sheer volume of candidates made it difficult for the city to digest.
"The field," said former city councilor and longtime political observer Michael McCormack, "was just too big."
Among the vanquished: sitting City Councilors Felix Arroyo, Mike Ross and Rob Consalvo. Two community activists and first-time candidates, Bill Walczak and John Barros, impressed commentators but struggled to build large electoral coalitions.
Voters were charged with a momentous task: setting a new direction for a city long dominated by outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino.
Menino's popularity and political acumen meant lopsided re-election victories every four years — with broad support in black, Latino and Asian-American Boston.
But his decision to step down at the end of his fifth full term brought speculation that the majority-minority city might elect its first mayor of color.
Half of the 12 candidates in the preliminary election were minorities and three emerged as legitimate contenders: Golar Richie, Arroyo and Barros.
Golar Richie's supporters tried, at one point, to winnow the field of minority candidates, but to no avail. Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Massachusetts, said "the black community missed a supreme opportunity."
"Not galvanizing behind one candidate — whether it was Charlotte or not — was a mistake," he said.
But even with fewer minority candidates, Golar Richie would have faced an uphill climb: the electorate was heavily weighted toward the leafier, whiter, older precincts of West Roxbury, Hyde Park and Roslindale that often dominate in municipal elections.
Now, Boston is set to return an Irish-American to the mayoralty — restoring a long tradition broken by Menino, who is Italian-American, in 1993.
But neither of the finalists fits the mold of the traditional Celtic politician.
Connolly, 40, grew up in Roslindale, the son of a judge and state representative-turned-secretary of state.
A Harvard graduate, he worked as a teacher for three years in charter schools in New York and Boston before getting his law degree and entering private practice.
He first won election to a citywide council seat in 2007 and has been re-elected twice since then -- making education his signature issue.
In 2011, he made surprise visits to four school cafeterias and found expired frozen food — an incident he turned into his first campaign commercial.
Last year, Connolly registered the lone vote against the teachers contract, citing its failure to extend the school day. He also worked with several elected officials to design an alternative to the school assignment plans the school committee was then considering.
Through his education and other work, Connolly built a broad network of supporters that seems to have paid dividends in the mayoral race.
The city did not release results by ward and precinct Tuesday. But according to Connolly campaign data, the candidate finished first in seven neighborhoods: the South End, Allston, Brighton, Charlestown, East Boston, the North End and West Roxbury.
And while Walsh outperformed him by wide margins in his Dorchester and South Boston strongholds — winning voters by a three to one margin — the Connolly campaign's data showed him besting Walsh by a nearly two to one margin in the rest of the city.
Walsh, 43, grew up in a triple decker in Dorchester. He survived a battle with cancer as a boy and battled alcoholism as a young man. The recovery community remains a source of political strength.
He worked briefly as a laborer and served as head of the Boston Building Trades, before stepping down to run for mayor.
Walsh, who represents a large swath of Dorchester in the state legislature, combined his home turf strength with a potent ground game.
In the final four days of the election, the campaign said it knocked on more than 150,000 doors. And on election day, 2,700 volunteers took to the streets.
Walsh drew much of his army from the labor movement. Unions have also provided a substantial financial boost — donating about one-quarter of the $1.4 million Walsh had raised by Sept. 15.
Labor groups made substantial independent expenditures in the campaign, too. Working America, the political organizing wing of the AFL-CIO, spent about $300,000 on a canvassing effort.
American Working Families, a liberal political action committee that describes itself as "fighting back against the war on working people," spent about $400,000 on television advertising on Walsh's behalf.
The candidate's labor ties were an issue in the preliminary election, with opponents raising questions about whether he could be trusted to negotiate contracts with unionized city workers.
Walsh made what one supporter called his "Nixon to China" argument — holding that he is uniquely positioned to deliver bad news to labor when required.
He also worked to paint a fuller picture of his background and experience, emphasizing his vote for education reform in the state legislature and his role blocking an effort to overturn gay marriage in Massachusetts.
In his speech Tuesday night, Walsh said he was the son of Irish immigrants, raised in a family that woke at 5 a.m. when his father went off to work.
He would go to City Hall, he said, "as a leader but also as a listener — a person who understands this city because I have lived it.”
As mayor, Walsh said, he would partner with the established business community and emerging knowledge economy innovators. But he said he would also tend to those parts of Boston who haven't shared in the city's prosperity.
"Yes, Boston is growing and attracting new people, but the high cost of living makes it hard for seniors and middle class families to stay in the city they know and they love," Walsh said.
Connolly also raised issues of equity.
He spoke of growing up in a city divided on racial and economic lines. He recalled working as a teacher with Latino students and walking with a group of mothers who had lost children to street violence.
"While our children are all growing up in Boston, they are living in two different worlds — one where children will hear gunshots as a regular part of their life and one where they will not," he said.
Delores Handy contributed to this report.