Boston mayoral contenders John R. Connolly and Martin J. Walsh face off tonight in the first of three televised debates for the Nov. 5 general election. With the candidates separated by just 1,400 votes in the preliminary vote and recent polling showing a tight contest, political observers believe the debates will play a crucial role in setting the narrative in the final weeks of the race.
Here are five things to watch for in tonight’s WBZ-TZ/Globe debate, compiled after conversations with political operatives, former candidates, and other observers. The debate airs at 7 p.m. on WBZ-TV and will be streaming live on Boston.com.
1. Can Walsh begin to seal the deal with Golar Richie/Arroyo/Barros voters?
Last week was a good one for Walsh, who is a state representative. He nailed down the backing of City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo and John Barros, a community leader in Roxbury, who were both mayoral candidates themselves during the preliminary. By Saturday, Walsh had secured the backing of former state representative Charlotte Golar Richie, who finished third in the preliminary vote.
Both campaigns have spent much time stumping in minority neighborhoods, which are expected to play a major role in determining the next mayor, and that endorsement trifecta gives Walsh the support of the three candidates of color.
While conventional wisdom says the impact of political endorsements is often overstated, the backing from Golar Richie, Arroyo, and Barros gives some minority voters -- which early polls showed favored Connolly by a wide margin -- a reason to give Walsh a second look.
The question is, can he seize the moment? There is no magic bullet to endear Walsh to minority voters, but it will be interesting to see whether the candidate makes clear overtures to them in the debate when responding to questions about public safety, schools, or economic development.
2. Does a central issue emerge? Do current events dominate the dialogue?
The first two weeks of the general election campaign were dominated by events outside of the candidates’ control: the police contract arbitration and unannounced school bus driver strike.
While the buses are running, at least for now, both candidates could bring up the strike because each campaign thinks the issue helped them look strong.
For Connolly, the bus driver strike was a combination of one of his perceived strongest positives (his passion for schools) and one his opponent’s strongest negatives (close union ties).
For Walsh, a former union president, it provided an opportunity to take a public stance in opposition to a union -- which could quell the fear among some voters that he is too close to union officials to resist their demands as mayor.
Even more likely to come up is the city’s ongoing contract battle with the police union, after an arbitration panel ruled that patrolmen deserve a 25.4 percent raise over six years.
The council has a hearing on the issue this afternoon and Connolly, who as a city councilor has a say in how the spat is ultimately resolved, will likely try to paint himself as one of those working diligently on the council to reach a resolution.
In addition to the events that have been grabbing headlines of late, the debates will also provide an opportunity for one issue or exchange to seize attention in the race.
From casinos to schools, police diversity to economic development, the mayoral race has thus far been a hodgepodge of issues and no one has been the primary focus.
That’s different than many previous Boston mayoral races. The bitter 1967 battle between eventual Mayor Kevin White and then-school committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks centered on school integration. The most recent mayoral race, in 2009, focused heavily on school quality.
3. How do both candidates react to being on the big stage?
Neither Connolly or Walsh are particularly experienced debaters. The councilor has never run in a one-on-one race, while the state representative has not been in a contested election since the middle of the Clinton presidency. Political observers agree that local races are rarely decided by gaffes, but a breakout moment or painful slip-up could dominate water cooler conversation and influence media coverage in the race’s crucial final weeks.
One of Walsh’s strengths on the trail is that he comes across as down-to-earth and personable. The question is, will he be able to communicate his next-door-neighbor familiarity during 90-second debate responses? More specifically, will he be able to squeeze his often anecdote-filled responses into the tight time slots allotted in a TV debate?
Connolly has spent years honing his key political message: that he would be the savior of Boston’s public schools. The question for Connolly could be whether he sticks to the script -- expired food in school cafeterias, standing up the Boston Teachers Union, and sending his daughter to a public school -- or whether he uses the televised audience to roll out a handful of new anecdotes and talking points.
4. Does either candidate go on the attack?
Boston’s last mayoral race -- the 2009 matchup between Michael Flaherty and Thomas M. Menino -- pitted a city councilor who was calling for wholesale changes in city leadership against an entrenched incumbent who was beloved by much of the electorate.
After the two televised debates in that race, Flaherty came under fire for having gone too soft on Menino. The debates remained largely civil and Flaherty was unable to land any knockout blows that would have helped him close the nearly 20-point gap in the polls.
Now, with Connolly and Walsh locked in a much tighter race, a terse exchange or two could have a much greater impact this time. The question is, is either candidate willing to go negative?
Thus far, Walsh has proven to be the more aggressive, slamming Connolly’s call for a People’s Pledge against accepting special-interest money as a political gimmick by an untrustworthy “corporate lawyer.” We’ll see whether Walsh revisits that line of attack tonight.
As for Connolly, the bus driver strike and this afternoon’s hearing on the police union arbitration provides him an opening to raise concerns about Walsh’s long history of union ties, if that is the path he chooses to take.
Speaking of the People’s Pledge...
5. Does outside money come up? If so, which candidate can come out of that exchange the winner?
During the preliminary contest, Connolly came under fire for the way he handled the pledged $500,000 independent expenditure by Stand For Children, an at-times controversial education nonprofit. After turning down the money, Connolly joined calls by other candidates for a “People’s Pledge” under which the candidates would swear off special-interest funding.
Connolly then called for Walsh -- who has benefited from more than $1 million from outside groups -- to sign such a pledge in the general election, but the state representative refused.
While Stand For Children has said it will honor Connolly’s wishes, another education advocacy group -- Democrats for Education Reform -- is spending on his behalf. Will Walsh hit Connolly for his ties to the group? If he does, will Connolly respond by noting the huge checks being written for Walsh commercials by labor-backed groups?