Boston’s two candidates for mayor pledged Wednesday night that their administrations would be more representative of the city, with about half of appointees being people of color. They also promised to bring jobs to struggling neighborhoods and to move aggressively to close the achievement gap between students.
In the third face-off of their campaign, state Representative Martin J. Walsh and Councilor at Large John R. Connolly sat beside each other, agreeing that there are too many inequities in communities of color, compared with the rest of the city.
Titled “Two Candidates, One Boston, Your Choice!” the debate, shown live on Boston Neighborhood Network Television, focused on issues affecting communities of color. It was added to the candidates’ schedule after some prodding by civil rights and community organizations, but no one needed to nudge the candidates to talk about issues of race and diversity Wednesday night.
“We need to talk more about racism,” Connolly said. “We need to talk more about institutional, systemic racism and the role it plays in our society. Communities of color don’t need to talk about it so much; you live it every day. White Bostonians need to talk about it. That’s the one thing that Mayor Walsh or Mayor Connolly can get done.”
Walsh said that as the head of the Boston Building Trades Council, he often visited the Boston Redevelopment Authority and was dismayed by the lack of diversity. “I would see people in the hallways, and they looked like me. We need to change that. We need to hold people’s feet to the fire.”
Unlike past debates, there was no discussion about privilege being a pejorative or the influence of outside groups. Instead, the candidates focused on the needs of minority neighborhoods.
Neither candidate did especially well in communities of color during the preliminary election, when there was a historic number of candidates running representing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. There was one woman on the ballot. Six candidates — of African-American, Cape Verdean-American, and Puerto Rican heritage — received 35 percent of the vote.
Communities of color are expected to play a decisive role in determining who will be elected mayor Nov. 5. For example, about 17 percent of the 113,222 votes cast in the preliminary election came from precincts in which more than half of adults are black people.
“This could be the pivotal debate because this community has power,” the Rev. Liz Walker, who moderated the debate, told the crowd inside the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury. “This community is important. This community could make the difference in this race — and will.”
A coalition of more than two dozen groups pushed for the debate, including the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the Boston Branch of the NAACP, the Commonwealth Compact at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and MassVOTE.
Both candidates vowed to make City Hall reflect the city, with about 53 percent of residents identifying as a race or ethnicity other than white.
“We have 64 positions of leadership in the city and four people of color” in those positions, Walsh said. “That needs to change. My transition team is going to reflect my administration, which is going to reflect the city of Boston.”
Connolly said having a Cabinet that is at least half people of color is “the easiest promise I can make.
“And that’s not a quota,” he said. “The talent is there. It’s just being put on the sideline.”
One of the areas in which the city needs a more diverse mix of businesses and employees is the development sector, the candidates said.
Connolly said that as mayor, he would commission a business disparity study, which would help highlight gaps in the system and ensure that businesses of color have the opportunity to participate on even footing. He wants to connect small businesses in the neighborhoods with large industries, having universities, for example, use companies in Roxbury to check their information technology systems.
But, Connolly said, it all starts with leadership at the BRA to make sure development deals are constructed inclusively. “We know the BRA needs to change in real ways,” he said. “When we’re talking about increasing development by communities of color, we need to increase communities of color in the BRA. Developers need to get direction from the leader of the city that we are serious.”
Getting businesses owned by women and people of color involved as development deals are crafted is critical, said Walsh, who promised to create a new agency, the Boston Economic Development Authority, which would be responsible for attracting businesses to the city.
“Under those cranes, we have a lot of residential units, but we’re not creating business opportunities,” he said. “We need to create business opportunities, not just on the waterfront, Downtown Crossing, and in Copley. But we need to bring those opportunities to our neighborhoods.”
Then alluding to his hesitant response to a question from the previous night’s debate about how he would use the bully pulpit of mayor, Walsh said he would challenge the business community to be more inclusive.
“I didn’t have this last night,” he said, “but I will use the bully pulpit to go to them and say, ‘We need to be more inclusive.’ ”
He also would seek to pair high schools with high-tech industrial trades, which would provide economic opportunities for young people who are not headed to college.
Education, specifically narrowing the achievement gap that persists between children of color and their white peers, was also a focus of the debate.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing that is going to lead to reducing the achievement gap,” Connolly said. “It’s about a holistic strategy. It’s got to start at the prenatal stage, when a mom is going to a community health center. Once that baby is born, it’s got to focus on the early literacy piece. When you bridge to the school, make sure you’re fully staffed for social, emotional supports in school.”
And, he said, there must be a strong cultural competency component built into the contract of Boston public school teachers, so cultural differences with students do not hinder education, but enhance it.
The time has come to confront the “institutional and systemic racism that drives the achievement gap,” said Connolly, who has made improving education the cornerstone of his campaign. “Sometimes, you have to stand firm and say what’s happening to our children is not OK. It’s important for children of color to have a teacher of color, but it’s also important for my daughter to have a teacher of color.”
Long-term and short-term strategies are needed to ensure that all of Boston’s children excel academically, Walsh said.
The gaps in poverty must be closed if the gaps in education are to be closed, Walsh said. Teachers in a school must reflect the diversity of students. Universal prekindergarten programs are needed for the city’s youngest learners.
And, he said, there needs to be real reform around high schools.
“A lot of people the last five years have been talking about, ‘We have to close the achievement gap,’ ” he said. “We study everything in this city to death, but we need to stop studying and start implementing.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.