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The Boston Globe

Politics

Adrian Walker

In mayoral candidates, distinct paths

While hardly brimming with new ideas, the debate Tuesday night between mayoral candidates John Connolly and Martin Walsh offered a clear look at the two men who want to run Boston. The hourlong skirmish focused heavily on unions and education, but offered a display of two very different ideas of running a city.

Perhaps unwisely, a lot of time early on was devoted to a back-and-forth on negative campaigning, a yawner for many voters. Few campaigns have ever been decided by whether a candidate can “control” his supporters, as Connolly claims Walsh cannot. Tactical issues are inherently boring.

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Things improved when the debate moved to the question of labor negotiations, which can now be safely called Walsh’s Achilles heel.

Pressed by Connolly to defend a bill he sponsored that would have eliminated the City Council’s ability to block fat contracts granted in arbitration, Walsh flailed for the third consecutive debate. He maintains that contract stalemates wouldn’t go to arbitration if he becomes mayor because he would settle matters before it got to that point. His response to the claim that he will not be an effective negotiator still boils down to: Trust me.

Connolly maintained that he is not anti-union, only anti-excess. “I want to make sure police and firefighters are well-paid, but we can’t compromise the city’s fiscal health,” he said.

As expected, education got a lot of attention. Connolly, of course, has essentially staked his candidacy on the notion that he can fix the schools. “Our schools connect up to every other issue,” Connolly said.

Walsh, for his part, touted his work in helping to found a charter school in Dorchester. If he wins, dealing with the Boston Teachers Union may be an early test of his ability to charm organized labor.

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Both candidates called for greater diversity in the Police Department, though both were vague on how they plan to address it.

Still, it was telling that, in response to a question about why the command staff is so white, both candidates flatly declared that racism still plays a major role in Boston. That won’t sound like a revelation to most black and brown Bostonians, but it wasn’t all that long ago that white politicians would have been loath to say as much out loud. That a onetime third-rail issue has been drained of so much of its divisive force says something about how the city has changed — and tells you something, too, about which voters are being fought over. Progressives and people of color are going to elect the next mayor.

So where does this debate leave the race? If you are a Connolly supporter, you probably were buoyed in your belief that your man has a more thoughtful approach to addressing the issues of education and public safety. Substantively, I think it’s fair to say that Connolly offered deeper and more details ideas about how he would govern.

But Walsh’s strengths were on display, too. He came across as a person who seeks collaboration, who listens — at least to the people who endorse him — and as a politician who genuinely cares about the people he represents. For all the policy papers his campaign has churned out, the main idea driving his campaign is that he is the candidate you can trust.

And with less than a week to go, Boston is looking at the first up-for-grabs mayoral final in a generation — since 1975, to be exact. Back then, the convulsions of court-ordered busing left many Bostonians unsure about a third term for Kevin White. This time, after five terms of Thomas Menino, we are wrestling with envisioning a City Hall without him.

So one of the most striking impressions of the debate, and the campaign, was how little either candidate resembles the paragon of popularity he is vying to replace. Younger, more thoughtful, and far more open to new ideas than Menino, they demonstrated Tuesday night that regardless of who wins, the tone of City Hall is in for change.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.

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