After Martin J. Walsh and John R. Connolly had spent nearly an hour chewing over education, collective bargaining, and transportation expansion, the moderator of the first head-to-head mayoral debate posed perhaps the most pressing question remaining: What is the difference between you two?
But the query failed to extract much more clarity. Connolly turned to his background as a teacher and the education platform his campaign has made its centerpiece. Walsh, for his part, sought to highlight a theme his campaign believes is a winner: an autobiography that he said puts him in touch with struggles facing the average Bostonian.
There were few other differences or moments of hot contention, although Connolly sought to rough up Walsh over collective bargaining legislation Walsh had filed at the State House, part of a broader effort to depict the Dorchester Democrat as too cozy with organized labor.
“I’m just concerned that when your campaign is taking over a million dollars in outside money and when you also work in two roles for these unions, that that will influence what you do as mayor,” Connolly charged, referring to Walsh’s past employment as a trade union official.
“I have no comment,” Walsh said.
Walsh said his eight terms as a lawmaker and relationships with unions would allow him to negotiate more successfully with both Beacon Hill and labor.
When there was an aggressor, it was Connolly. Walsh refrained from direct personal criticism of his rival, instead occasionally laying unbarbed blame at the feet of the oft-maligned Boston City Council.
And both continued the campaign-long reluctance to engage in overt fault-finding with five-term Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The closest either came to a negative critique of Menino was in oblique appraisals of city policies under his control, such as development or property taxes, but even those came after gushing accolades for a mayor whose approval ratings remain preternatural.
Menino “has the pulse of the city,” said Walsh, before allowing that he would seek a more transparent administration. Menino, enthused Connolly, “is the mayor of the neighborhoods.”
The debate largely overlapped with the Red Sox’ Game 3 victory over the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, a distraction for viewers who were getting their first chance to see the two finalists go head to head.
After months of forums before the Sept. 24 preliminary election that were often crowded by candidates numbering in the double digits, the bandwidth consumed by the baseball game may have discouraged either candidate from seeking a breakout moment that could be obscured by lack of attention.
Walsh’s campaign, too, believes it has accrued some momentum in the past week, after picking up endorsements from the preliminary’s top three finishers of color: bronze medalist Charlotte Golar Richie, Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo, and nonprofit executive John F. Barros. Being seen as overly aggressive in the first of three debates could have stomped on that energy.
Connolly, too, has picked up a spate of recent endorsements, including Golar Richie’s field director, longtime Menino political hand Darryl Smith, and a group of black ministers.
Walsh’s campaign acknowledged earlier in the day that a debate centered on education would play to Connolly’s advantage. Despite their argument that Walsh has long been a supporter of education overhaul and charter schools, Walsh advisers concede that Connolly has effectively claimed the upper hand on the issue.
“What we need to do, obviously, is force [Connolly] out of his comfort zone,” said one Walsh adviser before the debate. While Walsh did well in preventing Connolly from opening much daylight between them on education policy, nearly the entire first quarter of the debate dwelled on the topic.
Connolly advisers said, also prior to the debate, that they thought they had found a winner in remaining dialed in on education.
“We kind of got where we are with consistency,” said one adviser, pointing to a string of public polls in which respondents said they associated Connolly most closely with education.
Walsh, for his part, brought to the fore at times the personal narrative that some in his camp believe could elevate him above Connolly. Walsh is the son of immigrants, overcame cancer and alcoholism, and put himself through Boston College as an adult.
Connolly, of West Roxbury, grew up as part of a politically influential family and went to Harvard.
“Certainly I can identify with real-life challenges,” Walsh said near the start of the debate, before closing with, “I understand the struggles of the kids in our city.”
After Tuesday, voters just beginning to pay attention to the mayor’s race could be forgiven for lacking a similar understanding of the discrepancies between their two choices.