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Mayoral candidates cornered on many topics at forums

Boston mayoral candidates (from left) John Barros, Dan Conley, John Connolly, Rob Consalvo, Charlotte Golar Richie, Mike Ross, Bill Walczak, and Marty Walsh took part in a forum at Suffolk Law School last month.

Jessica RInaldi for The Boston Globe

Boston mayoral candidates (from left) John Barros, Dan Conley, John Connolly, Rob Consalvo, Charlotte Golar Richie, Mike Ross, Bill Walczak, and Marty Walsh took part in a forum at Suffolk Law School last month.

They have been quizzed by impoverished teenagers, Cape Verdean youths, architects, open space advocates, out-of-school young people, gay rights champions, and a group that billed itself as active senior citizens.

Topics have included the environment, education, and the late-night city and will, in the final 27 days before the preliminary election, turn to housing, jobs, poverty, the arts, and issues affecting communities of color.

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It is all in a day’s work for Boston’s mayoral candidates: another day, another forum.

Since May, the revolving door of forums has been in full swing, with groups clamoring for face time with the mayoral contenders and demanding answers on very specific questions about the issues nearest and dearest to the hosts.

The forum calendar has become so congested as election day approaches that scheduling conflicts have emerged, forcing candidates to pick between competing interests then publicly explain their choice.

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While the number of forums might seem mind-numbing, they serve a purpose for voters and candidates alike. Forums provide an opportunity to talk about the issues. Voters learn where the next mayor stands, and the next mayor learns what issues matter most to residents.

“I have never experienced anything like this,” Councilor at Large John R. Connolly said after a forum Monday. “We have a forum almost every day and sometimes more than one, but they are a great way to get in front of voters.” But, he said, “it’s tough to find the time to prepare for each and every one of them, so you’re flying by the seat of your pants.”

For a generation, Bostonians knew City Hall’s stance on many of these issues, but the city will soon venture into unfamiliar territory with the retirement of Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“Any group is a little bit nervous if they have a relationship with Menino, and other groups sense opportunity if they haven’t,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Love or hate Menino, you knew what you were getting.”

O’Brien, who said she is doing policy consultation for state Representative Martin J. Walsh’s campaign, said groups with good relationships with City Hall want to keep them, and those with nonexistent or icy associations “are dying to get into City Hall.”

It is not as if there are not usually forums during a mayoral election, said Mike Sherry, campaign spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. It is just that there are so many this time. The mayor’s race, he said, “is the most high-profile race in Boston.”

Combine that with the fact that this is the first time in a generation the city will have a new mayor. “There’s a lot of pent-up curiosity,” Sherry said.

Conley has participated in about 30 forums and has 20 more scheduled, said Sherry, who added: “There’s a lot of research that goes into every forum, at least for us. We try to prep as much material for him to read as possible.”

Councilor Rob Consalvo, who is running for mayor, said in a statement that he has participated in as many forums as possible, “too many to count.” But, he added, these are important opportunities “to connect one-on-one with as many voters as possible, to listen to them, to tell my story, and to share my vision for the future of Boston.”

Right now, it is the groups hosting forums that hold the power, as their members prepare to cast the votes that candidates seek. That dynamic will change after the election.

Some of the city’s most civic-minded residents attend forums, said Councilor Charles C. Yancey. “They are opinion leaders,” who, he said, pass along what they have learned to those not attending.

Forums are one of the most direct ways Bostonians can get to know the 12 candidates, said John F. Barros, a former School Committee member. These events are “a necessary way for democracy to really be authentic” he said. “It can’t just be left to the devices of the campaigns, spinning and putting things together.”

There must be independent spaces where candidates are forced to demonstrate their grasp of city issues, Barros said. “If you do not have a good working knowledge, if you haven’t been in the city, if you don’t know the issues, there is no way to prepare.”

Barros, along with Charles L. Clemons Jr., Charlotte Golar Richie, Connolly, and Yancey, sat on a small stage Monday at the Deutsches Altenheim German Center for Extended Care in West Roxbury. It was the second day of the Stand Up for Seniors forum, held with the West Roxbury Business and Professional Association. It was one of more than two dozen forums Barros has participated in since May.

“It’s important to hear their views, to see how they stand up for our seniors and what are they going to do for our seniors,” said Carol Kelly, the center’s director of residential life. “The majority of our residents vote. And they do have a lot of good questions.”

There were questions about housing for veterans, a new chief for the Fire Department, extending library hours, improving sidewalks for wheelchair accessibility, the proposed Suffolk Downs casino, and leaning utility poles.

For some, there really is no good way to prepare to express a salient point in 60 seconds — often the allotted time for responding.

“It took me a month to figure out how to handle these things,” said Bill Walczak, a former health care executive. “Nobody should be able to answer complex questions in 60 seconds, but because of the size of the field, that’s what happens.”

He said he attends as many forums as possible and often stays late talking with voters.

It is this connection with voters that Golar Richie, a former nonprofit executive and state representative, said she needs to do more of in the weeks leading up the preliminary election. So, she plans to cut back on forum attendance.

“While forums are a critical part of the campaign, they are not going to connect me with as many voters as I need,” she said. “If I’m going to win this race for mayor, voter contact is going to be the most important effort in my campaign strategy.”

Her strategy? Good, old-fashioned shoe-leather stumping: knocking on doors, visiting businesses, and holding a series of community meetings.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated Mike Sherry’s position with the mayoral campaign of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. Sherry is the campaign spokesman.

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