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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Class and Boston’s new mayor

Boston doesn’t need a phony class war, fueled by labor supporters of mayoral candidate Martin J. Walsh — not when it faces the prospect of a real one.

Forget about new Boston versus old Boston. The real issue is rich Boston versus poor Boston and whether the next mayor cares enough to do something about it.

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But some Walsh backers are trying to reduce that broad concern to something personal. Fliers that describe John Connolly as a “son of privilege” who “doesn’t understand working class people” are part of an effort to frame this race as “Mahty” Walsh, son of Irish immigrants, versus John R. Connolly, offspring of a well-connected political family.

Walsh has denounced the negative campaign literature, which was funded with labor money and delivered by outside groups beyond his control. But if the candidate can’t stop those outside groups, they should stop themselves for a simple reason. It’s a losing strategy.

Trying to turn Connolly into Mitt Romney isn’t going to work. As Connolly likes to quip, “I did grow up in Roslindale, and not Beverly Hills.” There are legitimate questions about Connolly’s law practice and downtown business support. But trying to make an issue of his Harvard degree, or the fact that his father is a former secretary of state and his mother is a retired judge, is foolish.

For one thing, the Connolly family path of upward mobility resonates with many longtime Bostonians. Meanwhile, those labor-funded fliers underscore Walsh’s union ties — which in turn raise doubts about his ability to bargain on behalf of all Bostonians.

The emphasis on whose roots are more humble also turns the bigger concern — the growing gap between rich and poor — into petty caricature.

In CommonWealth Magazine, Don Gillis, who served as executive director of the Economic Development Industrial Corporation during the administration of Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, paints a picture of a city divided by income level.

In the midst of an economic boom, 36,000 Boston children live in poverty, writes Gillis. The top 10 percent of Boston’s families earned as much income before taxes as the bottom 75 percent of Boston families combined. Meanwhile, families at the 95th percentile earned nearly 40 times the income of those at the 5th percentile. “With poverty at a 20-year high in Boston, the next mayor must concern himself with addressing inequality,” Gillis argues.

Both candidates promise they will, but both should be pressed on their biases and loyalties.

It’s important to stand up to labor when it comes to negotiating contracts. But it’s also important to stand up to developers when it comes to upgrading linkage formulas and deliver more affordable housing. And what about corporate tax breaks? During Tuesday night’s debate, Connolly said he voted for the $46 million in tax breaks given to Liberty Mutual, and was “furious” to learn the company is now cutting employee benefits while paying one former CEO $200 million and spending $4.5 million to renovate the office of its new CEO.

That might be a problem for him — except that Walsh lobbied for those tax breaks because it meant jobs for union workers.

Connolly, who latched onto school reform as the best path to addressing inequality, owns the brand of “education candidate” just as Walsh owns the brand of “labor candidate.” Walsh’s brand is more controversial, but Connolly’s has risks as well.

One risk is that his “army of moms and dads,” as he describes supporters, may be stereotyped as a mainly middle- and upper-class constituency. He calls that “nonsense,” saying his backers include “survivors of homicide, newly-arrived Bostonians, and young professionals.”

Another risk is that Connolly is seen as a one-dimensional candidate. “That’s what we’ll find out — can a ‘schools first’ candidate win?” he said during a recent interview.

Walsh talks about jobs as the path to equality. But he missed opportunities in two televised debates to tell voters about his concrete efforts as head of the Building Trades Council to open up construction jobs to women and minorities.

Instead, his union backers fueled a squabble over who grew up in the closest equivalent to an urban log cabin.

Where the next mayor came from matters less than where he wants the city to go — and how many Bostonians get there with him.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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