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The Boston Globe

Opinion

lawrence harmon

Humor, pluck, and rust in Boston’s mayoral field

On paper, at least, there are no duds among the 10 mayoral hopefuls who squared off at two significant candidate forums in Boston on Wednesday. But there are sharp differences in their levels of preparedness for this race. It is already clear that Boston City Councilors John Connolly and Michael Ross have powerful grasps on major policy issues and aren’t afraid to throw some elbows. Former state representative Charlotte Golar Richie is totally rusty. Construction executive Bill Walczak, who hopes to emerge as the business candidate, is floundering in the fast-moving political waters. And Dorchester state Representative Martin Walsh appeared to be over his head when discussing education policies.

It’s a short race to the Sept. 24 primary, when the top two vote-getters will be chosen for the November runoff. Voter interest may wane over the summer. So the early performances meant something. It’s not every day that the candidates get a chance to impress the urbanist crowd from the Boston Society of Architects — the host of the morning forum — or make their case to an overflow crowd of about 600 at an evening forum sponsored by the hardcore education reformers from Stand for Children.

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Golar Richie, who served as the city’s housing and neighborhood development chief, should have wowed the morning crowd, given her professional background on building a safe and sustainable city. Instead, she mouthed platitudes while Connolly made a pitch for “middle market’’ housing for young families, and Ross promised the issuance of more restaurant licenses as a way to enliven the neighborhoods. Golar Richie also fell flat at the evening debate on education. She invoked a 2006 prize in urban education won by the Boston Public Schools. Ross, meanwhile, invoked a future where great teachers earn merit pay, and Connolly declared that he will never sign a teachers’ contract if it lacks key reforms, such as a longer school day for students. Walczak struggled to formulate responses during the time allotted him on the need for a longer day and more charter schools. He supports both, however.

The entry of Golar Richie — the only woman in the race — and Walczak, who founded the Codman Square Health Center, promised to offer fresh perspectives from candidates with strong resumes. So far, it hasn’t been the case. If they don’t step up their games soon, voters are going to start asking what they are doing in this race.

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley won’t miss many questions on urban law enforcement. But it would have been nice to see how he fielded questions about the governance of the downtown Greenway linear park, the effects of sea level rise on coastal Boston, and other heady issues at the morning forum. He didn’t attend, however. Conley did put in a solid performance at the education forum. While several candidates supported raising the cap on charter schools, he demanded to know “why we haven’t done so already.’’ Prosecutors who run for other offices risk coming across as too severe. He is no exception. Conley faces the challenge of making voters feel like they are understood, not under arrest.

City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo doesn’t have that problem. At both forums, the affable Arroyo skillfully mixed humor, policy, and personal anecdotes. He made such a good impression describing how his own early passion for reading shaped his life that the ed reformers in the audience may have missed that he is joined at the hip with the city’s teachers’ union.

Neither former School Committee member John Barros nor City Councilor Rob Consalvo jumped out from the crowd at either forum. But both candidates generally looked and sounded like they belonged there. Barros wants to simplify life for parents by allowing them to apply for both district and charter schools with a single, common application. And he wants to uncouple city planning from the “bottom line’’ development function at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Both are good ideas. Consalvo, who is known as a problem solver, mostly played it safe. Walsh adopted the usual Consalvo role of offering down-to-earth solutions. During the morning session, for example, Walsh suggested the need to “repurpose’’ empty utility buildings in the city’s neighborhoods. It’s a good challenge for the city’s architects.

Conley faces the challenge of making voters feel like they are understood, not under arrest.

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At the education forum, Councilor Charles Yancey seemed more interested in touting the successes and educational achievements of his children than in offering new ideas for the city’s schools. That should earn him a nice card on Father’s Day, but little attention from voters.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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