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Yvonne Abraham

Looking for a new vision

If you want a glimpse of just how hard Mayor Tom Menino has made it for his successor, tag along as candidates Marty Walsh and John Connolly meet with seniors.

At Cheriton Heights, a West Roxbury housing development Walsh visited on Monday, residents were upset about their cable bills. “And Comcast is all repeats,” said one woman. “They haven’t put any new shows on in a year and a half.”

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“My mother pays $152 a month because she wants the Irish channel,” Walsh offered, before promising to lower her bills as mayor.

As Connolly spoke at the Nazzaro Center in the North End on Tuesday, one woman loudly expressed outrage about restaurants and rodents. (“The rats are this big!” she told him later, holding out her hands to the width of a cocker spaniel.)

“I’ll get rid of all the restaurants,” Connolly joked, to laughter. “I’ll shut ’em down!”

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For 20 years, this city has had a mayor famous for his immersion in such details, small to the grand scheme of things, huge to those afflicted. If Menino had been in West Roxbury, he’d probably be going through that woman’s cable bill, line by line. If he’d been at the Nazzaro Center, you’d half expect him to take the rats into custody himself.

There is greatness in that, but also the risk of an overly narrow focus. It’s time for a change. The city needs an urban mechanic who makes sure the rats are taken care of, but also a mayor who thinks expansively about what Boston should be. At times, the race to succeed Menino has sounded that way: In the preliminary, the candidates talked about schools, culture, transportation, and crime in truly ambitious ways.

Lately, less so. Lately, we’ve been hearing, ad nauseam, about a phony class divide. It’s a cunning strategy by the Walsh campaign: Hammered repeatedly for being too close to unions, he and his supporters have embraced what critics call his Achilles’ heel. They’ve cast Walsh as the candidate of the worker, and positioned Connolly as a son of privilege, beholden to business elites. Oh, and worse, he’s a lawyer. Imagine.

These are such bogus and disheartening claims. Walsh wore a blue collar for two years before he became a union official, and eventually an extremely well-compensated one, making way more money in recent years than Connolly did as an attorney. Connolly had a more comfortable upbringing, but he’s hardly Mitt Romney, Roslindale hardly the Riviera.

Like others, I find it a bit rich, if you’ll pardon the expression, for a candidate who touts his ability to unite the city along racial lines to open another divide on class. More important, it’s unfair because Connolly clearly cares as much about poor and working Bostonians as Walsh does. Education has been the heart and soul of his candidacy. And kids in this city’s schools, including the one where he sends his own child, are overwhelmingly poor.

Still, the Walsh strategy seems to be working. And it’s distracting from what this election has to be about — what this city can and should be.

We have less than a week to go. If we could somehow strip away the posturing and sniping, we’d be left with two dedicated, thoughtful, decent guys who care deeply about the whole city. The decisive question should be which of them thinks most clearly and forcefully about Boston’s toughest challenge — its schools.

For me that guy is clearly Connolly. Not because he’d be tougher with the teachers union, though he would be, but because he better understands what it takes to make a school great. He sees how the pieces fit together, how failing schools make failing neighborhoods, how good ones can lift whole communities, how a school can be a key, as well, to a more representative police force. Walsh’s people have come up with some strong proposals on education. But Connolly lives this stuff. In debates and in person, he is more lucid and knowledgable, more intent on change.

Maybe you disagree. Polls show many voters do. Fine. But whomever you choose, consider first this question of vision. A choice like this comes along so seldom in this city.

This is a time to aim for the sky.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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