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SCOT LEHIGH

Keeping the mayor’s race in perspective

Back in the late 20th century, when we last had an open mayor’s race in Boston, I spent election night covering Jim Brett, the Dorchester state rep who ended up losing to Tom Menino.

His gathering was at the Copley Plaza Hotel, and at one point, I found myself at the hotel’s bank of pay phones — yes, it was that long ago — calling my editor about the story I’d filed on Brett’s gracious and classy concession speech.

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When I finished my call, I discovered that someone had sidled up and left a note for me. The note-writer vehemently disagreed with the Globe’s endorsement of Menino — and expressed that thought in venomous terms. I was stunned that someone was so bilious and bitter that he had taken the time to figure out which reporter was from the Globe and then to scrawl out some vitriol and wait for a moment when he could drop it unseen.

These days, the Internet’s easy anonymity has made conveying those kinds of sentiments much easier. Even so, I still find it remarkable how completely some people lose perspective during political campaigns.

In this mayor’s race, John Connolly, a son of Roslindale, has been caricatured as a to-the-manor born elitist who, in the words of one labor-sponsored flyer, “isn’t one of us” and “does not understand working-class people.” That’s silliness on stilts, a sad attempt to kindle class resentments.

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Marty Walsh, meanwhile, has been described as a union hack or pinky-ring type. That caricature speaks to the same tendency some feel to vilify those they oppose.

To be sure, the mayoral finalists are different people. It won’t surprise readers of this column that I see Connolly as a more determined and strategic change agent, someone more willing to embark on the struggle that significant reforms in education and city government will require.

Here’s one thing you can say with certainty: Both are good and decent individuals.

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Walsh strikes me as more of a Menino-like incrementalist, a man who will try to use his personal suasion to nudge constituency groups toward more modest changes.

Which approach is preferable depends on how much change you think is needed.

If you are a member of, say, the Boston Teachers Union or Boston Firefighters Local 718, Walsh’s low key, collaborative inclination likely seems more mayoral. If you view those powerful groups as occasional impediments to important change, Connolly probably looks more like the mayor Boston needs.

That said, Connolly’s greater reform impulse doesn’t guarantee success. It takes skill and perseverance to change entrenched institutions. Although a harder-charging mayor might well get more done, he could also find himself an unhorsed reformer with a broken lance.

The oft-repeated worry about Walsh is that he’d be too beholden to unions to mount the effort necessary to alter time-honored practices and arrangements. That’s a concern I share. Still, there’s certainly an argument to be made that a mayor who enjoys the trust and support of organized labor could be well-positioned to get city unions to embrace some necessary reforms.

But no matter how you feel about their rival approaches, here’s one thing you can say with certainty. Both are good and decent individuals. For all the forums and speeches and debates and ads, it’s conversation with their supporters that have persuaded me of that.

When I think of Walsh, I think of the two guys who knocked on my door one night and spent 20 minutes telling me why they believed so strongly in him. In a sentence, it was for his big-hearted, empathic embrace of those struggling to put their lives back together.

With Connolly, I think of the stories from mothers about the hours he put in helping them navigate the Boston Public Schools bureaucracy or find the right setting for an autistic child. Or his efforts to save a key position at their kids’ school.

All of which is to say that both of these guys are committed, caring, honorable people. No matter whom you intend to vote for, that’s something to keep in mind in the campaign’s closing days.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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