Nothing clarifies your campaign impressions like a head-to-head conversation among the candidates — and on Wednesday, Boston.comment, Boston.com’s new interactive discussion forum, hosted two debates for Boston mayoral hopefuls.
An afternoon forum brought together Dan Conley, Bill Walczak, Felix Arroyo, and David Wyatt, while an evening talk-fest featured John Connolly, John Barros, Charles Yancey, and Charles Clemons. (Marty Walsh, Rob Consalvo, and Michael Ross debated last week; Charlotte Golar Richie couldn’t make it on Wednesday due to a death in her family.)
So what were my takeaways? Overall, Connolly, the city councilor, and Barros, the former head of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, were debate day’s most impressive performers. Both demonstrated a keen grasp of the issues, had clear visions, and showed some of the backbone an effective mayor will need. Connolly is in the top tier in this race and he definitely belongs there. Barros is in the bottom tier (at least for now), and he definitely doesn’t belong there.
Charles Clemons won my Nixon-Goes-to-China Award. The personable former Boston police officer was the only candidate who said he’d replace police details with flaggers in Boston (a question that didn’t come up in the afternoon debate). He wants more police on the beat, Clemons said afterward, but thinks having civilian flaggers would create jobs for other Bostonians. Some other candidates seemed to think police details paid for by developers or utilities are free. Doesn’t work that way, guys. The cost gets passed along in the form of higher prices, rents, or rates.
Candidates always over-promise, but Arroyo, the city councilor, and Walczak, Mr. Codman Square, seem particularly prone to magical thinking. Both want universal pre-K, a longer school day (Walczak in some schools, Arroyo in all), and MBTA service pretty much around the clock. So where would the transportation funding come from?
Not city funds. Both Arroyo and Walczak said state government should cough up the dollars for vampire-hours public transit. When I noted lawmakers had just passed one transportation tax package and aren’t likely to do another, both declared that as mayor, they’d advocate and organize for more state dollars. Well, OK, but to paraphrase Jessica Lange playing Patsy Cline, people in hell advocate and organize for ice water, but that doesn’t mean they get it.
As for education funding? Walczak said he’d get rid of fire-alarm boxes to save a couple of million (drop, meet bucket), and then use zero-based budgeting to free up more money in the city budget. Translation: This is a promise-now, figure-out-how-to-pay-later plan.
Arroyo said he’d build his budget from the classroom up, stagger teacher hours, and cut central-office administration. That’s a start, but it’s hard to think he could find all the funds he’d need that way.
Conley, the Suffolk County DA, was more realistic, at least on public transit. His call for longer T service isn’t as extensive; further, he’d favor higher fares in the wee hours, an idea Walczak later said he could also embrace.
One of the most instructive exchanges came when Barros challenged Yancey on his assertion that the elected school committee Boston once had was preferable to the current appointed one. Given the politics of the issue, it takes some guts for a minority candidate to support an appointed committee. Barros, a former School Committee appointee, showed that fortitude.
My award for candor goes to Councilor Connolly, who explained why, after some evolution, he has come to favor an appointed school committee. One big reason: He worries that the Boston Teachers Union could spend heavily in a low-turnout election and thereby help elect a reform-resistant, union-beholden, school panel.
On charter schools: Conley, Connolly, Barros, and Walczak all said they support lifting the cap. Yancey said most parents of charter students were “very happy” with the schools — and then said he was against a cap lift. Afterwards, I asked him if he’d read the recent Stanford and MIT studies detailing the strong education gains by Boston charters. He hadn’t. Neither, for that matter, had Arroyo before he took his anti-cap-lift stand earlier this year.
Myself, I’m hoping for more rigorous, open-minded, examine-the-evidence decision-making from Boston’s next mayor.