Tuesday night’s debate featured little fresh substance from either state Representative Martin J. Walsh or Councilor John R. Connolly, both of whom offered familiar arguments. But the atmospherics of a tight contest and the vista — of the two standing feet apart, flinging accusations of campaign skullduggery — made clear the underlying tension.
The final debate featured the crispest exchanges yet, as Connolly escalated his efforts to tie Walsh to anti-Connolly mailings from labor unions, and Walsh tried to put Connolly in a box by asking whether the West Roxbury Democrat intended to air any negative ads.
“Marty and I both believe in unions. But there’s a difference here on priorities,” Connolly said, in a discussion of a Walsh proposal to restrict local governing bodies’ ability to approve or reject arbitration awards for municipal employees. Walsh, Connolly charged, championed legislation “on behalf of the unions which would hurt the city” and that $2 million had “come into his campaign” from organized labor.
“Here goes John again, exaggerating the facts. First of all, I am proud to have the support of working men and women,” the Dorchester Democrat responded, turning in his best answers of the campaign on the labor questions that have dogged him. Walsh dismissed Connolly’s $2 million figure as inaccurate — though he has benefited from roughly that amount in independent expenditures — and he argued that his Beacon Hill career has been marked by successfully brokering negotiations between policymakers and labor officials.
And he countered back at Connolly, a lawyer: “We don’t need another lawyer in City Hall right now.”
The final televised debate came as Walsh appears to have plucked the momentum. Both campaigns on Monday said their internal polling showed the race tied, a departure from a previous survey, which had showed Connolly with a significant lead.
Again, as in earlier debates, the discussion focused on subjects friendly to Connolly. Walsh’s campaign acknowledges that when the discourse focuses on labor or education, Connolly gains the upper hand. And Connolly sharpened his attacks, raising doubts about whether Walsh is too loyal to labor.
Walsh, though, proved nimbler in his answers than in previous debates.
Walsh also continued to show how determined he is to prevent any daylight developing between himself and Connolly on education policy, a calling-card issue for the West Roxbury Democrat. Polls consistently show him beating Walsh on the issue, although the material policy differences between them are slim.
And Walsh countered questions about his links to the labor groups that sent the anti-Connolly mailers by pointing to a phone call, containing anti-Walsh information, that an unknown number of Boston voters received last week from a firm that Connolly’s campaign has hired in the past.
In a campaign that has dwelled long on whether the candidates are straying into negative territory, neither man can rightly claim purity.
In the segment allowing candidates to pose questions to each other, Walsh sought to pin Connolly down about whether he intended to air a negative ad. Connolly, who has resolutely sworn off negative campaigning, did not answer directly, instead repeating earlier answers about his opposition to such tactics.
“We’re not going to run a negative campaign,” he said. “We haven’t. Everything that my campaign will say, whether it’s a TV ad or a flier, will be based on the exact things I have said to you in these debates.”
Then, when it was his turn to query Walsh, Connolly appeared to provide possible fodder for such an ad, asking about Walsh’s $175,000 salary in 2012 as head of a labor group and accusing him of not being independent during his time on Beacon Hill.
Both candidates appeared mortified at the prospect of offending either of the split camps in East Boston, where polls show voters divided on whether to approve a casino at Suffolk Downs. While both resisted landing too firmly on one side, Connolly’s dancing ability outpaced Walsh’s. When moderator R.D. Sahl tried to nail him down on whether he would vote for a casino if he lived in East Boston, Connolly said, “I don’t live in East Boston.”
The extent to which both candidates need to broaden their largely white voting bases, beyond southwestern neighborhoods for Connolly and eastern wards for Walsh, was laid bare when they offered answers that are unlikely to appear in the city’s tourism appeals any time soon. Asked whether racism exists in the Police Department, Connolly responded, “There’s racism in all of Boston – institutional, systemic, structural racism.”
Echoing him, Walsh said, “We have racism in the city of Boston that we have to deal with. I mean, we talk about one Boston and really we don’t see one Boston.”
Walsh quickly transitioned to a mention of the preliminary election’s top three finishers of color, all of whom have endorsed him.
But his point about the inability to see “one Boston” lingered. Certainly, voters watching Tuesday night’s debate did not.
Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com.