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Will Conley, Connolly confuse voters in mayoral race?

Candidates’ names have a familiar ring

The clear choice for mayor in West Roxbury is Conley. Or is it Connolly? Two syllables. Or three? The district attorney? Or councilor?

Both Daniel F. Conley and John R. Connolly live in West Roxbury. Both claim ancestors from Galway. Both are lawyers. Both have raised oodles of money. And both have blue campaign signs with white letters.

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“I don’t know the difference between them,” said Gloria Perry, 45, as she walked across Centre Street in West Roxbury, directly in front of a Conley campaign office festooned with signs. “Maybe if one of them had a middle name.”

Each does — Francis and Ronan — but that’s beside the point. This is Boston’s first open race for mayor in two decades. Twelve candidates will appear on the ballot Sept. 24 for the preliminary election. The top two finishers advance to the final in November. Stakes are high. Voters would never get tripped up by a similar-sounding name. Right?

“John Connolly, isn’t he DA? Or wasn’t he DA?” asked Paulette Gray, a 62-year-old Dorchester resident as she waited for a bus on a sunny day, an umbrella under her arm. “To be honest with you, I think they all need to do something more to differentiate themselves. I’ve gotten so used to Mayor Menino, I haven’t seen any of them prove they can do the job.”

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This is not the first time two candidates faced off with similar names. Remember “Tim for Treasurer,” the successful slogan for Timothy P. Cahill in the 2002 Democratic primary? He beat Michael P. Cahill, whose catch phrase, “I like Mike,” did not quite catch on.

In South Gate, Calif., voters once had to choose between Hector De La Torre and Hector De La Torre for city council. It was worse in Russia, where a race for St. Petersburg’s city assembly included a showdown between Oleg Sergeyev, Oleg Sergeyev, and Oleg Sergeyev.

In Massachusetts, one of the most famous examples came in 1946, when a 29-year-old World War II veteran named John F. Kennedy made his first run for Congress. Kennedy faced competition in the Democratic primary from a Boston councilor named Joseph Russo. Another man named Joseph Russo jumped into the race, and there have long been allegations it was a ploy to split the Russo vote. (Kennedy won three times more votes than both Russos combined.)

This past week in Andrew Square, Alan MacNeil suggested — with a wink — that a similar plot may be afoot to help his mayoral candidate, state Representative Martin J. Walsh. MacNeil said that Conley and Connolly may both be running to help clear the field. “It was done on purpose,” MacNeil said, “to get Walsh elected.”

Could Connolly and Conley confuse voters?

“It sounds like Dickens characters,” quipped Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “I think by election day the people who go to the polls will be pretty motivated. . . . I don’t think it’s going to be a big cause for concern.”

For the record: Conley is the Suffolk district attorney. He also served on the City Council for a decade when he lived in Hyde Park. His mayoral signs are navy blue with a splash of red with his last name in large letters.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

In West Roxbury, signs for Conley and Connolly compete.

The candidate said that perhaps one in 20 voters confuses the two names. Conley said when he introduces himself, voters cut through any confusion by immediately asking, “Are you the district attorney?”

The ballot will identify Conley as the current district attorney and a former district councilor. Conley said his surname may sound similar to his phonetic doppelganger, but on election day voters will select among printed names.

“He has excess letters,” Conley said. “I joke about that.”

The “other” Connolly has royal blue placards with orange stripes. The first name John is in larger letters. Connolly will be identified on the ballot as a councilor at large. And he has tried to distinguish himself from the crowd of candidates by making education the cornerstone of his campaign.

“We really haven’t found much voter confusion,” Connolly said.

What does he tell somebody who is confused about whether to support Conley or Connolly? “It’s two N’s, two L’s because it takes a little more to get the job done,” Connolly said.

Right. It is not that complicated. Ignore Dan Connolly, who plays for the New England Patriots. And the infamous John Connolly, whose name is synonymous with gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

“The first time I saw John’s signs,” Josh Severse, 35, a Web developer from West Roxbury, said, “I thought of the corrupt FBI agent in the Bulger trial.”

Could another mayoral candidate help voters distinguish between Connolly and Conley?

“Honestly, I can’t tell” the difference, said Councilor Michael P. Ross, who is also running for mayor. “I just go with ‘my distinguished colleague from West Roxbury’ to be safe.”

Another mayoral candidate, Charles L. Clemons Jr., offered succinct advice. “Just remember Clemons,” he said. “First name on the ballot.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

Correction: Because of a designer’s error, a graphic accompanying an earlier version of this story misstated the year of birth of City Councilor John R. Connolly. He was born in 1973.

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