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SCOT LEHIGH

Connolly a tough challenge for Mayor Menino

Boston City Councilor John Connolly announced his candidacy for mayor of Boston outside Brighton High School.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Boston City Councilor John Connolly announced his candidacy for mayor of Boston outside Brighton High School.

CITY COUNCILOR John Connolly has now jumped in where more cautious would-be hopefuls fear to tread, declaring that he will run for mayor of Boston regardless of what Tom Menino decides.

The conventional wisdom is that Connolly, a boyish-looking 39, is on a fool’s errand, and that if Menino wants another term, he’ll win in a walk. My own view is just the opposite: If Menino decides to seek an unprecedented sixth term, Connolly will give him his toughest challenge yet — and might just send the long-time incumbent into unanticipated retirement.

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Past challengers to Menino have fallen into two distinct categories: Quixotic long shots or union-backed challengers who were less plausible than Menino as reformers.

Connolly, 39, a graduate of Harvard College and Boston College Law School, is different. He’s a smart, serious politician with a substantial following among Boston’s young families, in part because he’s focused like a laser on an issue crucial to that constituency: improving the city’s public schools.

“The cornerstone of this campaign will be a call for transformative change in Boston’s public schools, because Boston’s future starts with our schools,” he declared Tuesday in his announcement speech. “The success of our schools directly impacts our ability to create safe, healthy, and livable neighborhoods, as well as our ability to create jobs, attract talent, and retain families in Boston.” That transformation, Connolly said, will take “political will and a bold desire to change the status quo.”

The job of city councilor is an underpowered post, but Connolly has demonstrated that will and that desire as chairman of the council’s education committee. In an innovative 2010 move, he used his council position to hold an extended hearing to give parents and students a chance to talk about what they want and need from Boston schools. He has highlighted the fact that Boston has one of the shortest days of any urban district in the nation — and when the recent contract didn’t extend the school day, he voted against it.

Now, Menino has also been frustrated by the school department’s inability to win important changes from the Boston Teachers Union, an organization known for its intransigence. After failing to secure a longer day in the traditional schools, Menino is now asking lawmakers to give him the authority to circumvent the union by creating more in-district charters, where the city can extend learning time without needing union sign-off.

At his announcement, I asked Connolly what Menino should have done differently in regard to the BTU. “The mayor had the power to direct the superintendent to implement the last best offer, and he didn’t do it,” Connolly said. “We could have gotten a longer school day for our children and probably have paid our teachers more in the process.”

That brought this retort from Dot Joyce, Menino’s spokeswoman: “It’s very easy to lob accusations and get press around theories and ideas. It is much more difficult to make the tough choices and do the hard work necessary for change.”

Still, Connolly is right that Menino could have gone that route.

Connolly, whose resume includes three years of teaching, including a stint at a charter school, said he’d be “open” to lifting the cap on charters in Boston, though he added that any such legislation should also include more flexibility for the traditional public schools.

“They offer great options to parents, and they [parents] show that by demanding those schools,” he said of charters. “They push our Boston public schools to be better. They have become the model for reform.”

That’s an acknowledgment one simply won’t hear from the mayor.

When it comes to electoral politics, meanwhile, one couldn’t help but be impressed with the strategic alliance Connolly struck in the last election with fellow at-large councilor Ayanna Pressley. The two campaigned as a team, in a move that helped them both; Pressley, who had been considered vulnerable, emerged as the top vote-getter. The election results, meanwhile, helped keep Michael Flaherty from returning to the body, thereby depriving him of a platform to wage a second campaign against Menino, a development that has obviously helped Connolly.

Politics rewards boldness and passion. Yesterday, Connolly showed both.

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