From the imperial concrete bunker known as Boston City Hall, Mayor Martin J. Walsh is doing what incumbents always do: working overtime to limit his opponent’s exposure to voters and his own exposure to scrutiny.
With that dual mission in mind, the mayor has decreed that he will participate in only two televised debates with City Councilor Tito Jackson. What makes political sense for Walsh, however, is a disservice to Boston voters, not to mention democracy.
Jackson asked Walsh to participate in four debates. In response to that very reasonable request, Walsh campaign manager John T. Laadt sent a letter dripping with the disdain that goes along with a big lead in the polls. “We understand your frustration with the state of the race so far, but Mayor Walsh has spoken to thousands of Bostonians about his plan for the next four years and will speak to thousands more before the election is over,” wrote Laadt.
Speaking to Bostonians via canned events is not the same as being held accountable on a debate stage. Walsh can celebrate the start of “Manufacturing Month” at the Dorchester Brewing Company. But that’s not the same as fielding questions about income inequality in a city increasingly defined by it. Backing a plan to commission a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. is a welcome mayoral gesture of inclusion. But it doesn’t explain the achievement gap between black and white students in Boston public schools. As mayor, Walsh can make an important play for Amazon to build a second headquarters in Boston. But it doesn’t erase the need to address the hard economic reality for those citizens and businesses left out of the boom.
Meanwhile, who knows if Walsh will even follow through on his commitment to two televised debates? Citing scheduling difficulties, he backed out of a promise to participate in a debate before the preliminary election. A face-to-face debate that was scheduled to take place on Oct. 10 on WBZ News Radio with host Dan Rea was canceled after the union representing WBZ-TV technicians, photographers, and master control operators went public with its contract dispute and asked the candidates to boycott the event. Both agreed. After all, no Democrat running for office can afford to offend labor in Walsh’s Boston.
The turnout on September’s preliminary election day was an absymal 14 percent. Celebrating his 63 percent share of the 56,000 people who cast votes, Walsh said, “I look forward to six great weeks of positive conversations in every single neighborhood.” If he truly wants to maximize those conversations, he should agree to more than two televised debates.