Mayoral hopeful John R. Connolly sought Tuesday night to use attacks against him from organized labor to frame the fundamental difference between him and rival Martin J. Walsh, hoping voters would see a clear distinction in a race with few policy differences.
In the opening minutes of their second televised debate, Connolly pounced on mailed political ads that characterized the city councilor as a "son of privilege." Walsh, a longtime state representative and union leader, had asked labor groups to stop sending the mailers Saturday after one brochure criticized Connolly and his upbringing. But two more negative brochures surfaced Tuesday that blasted Connolly and mischaracterized the New York school where Connolly taught for two years.
Connolly said Walsh has based his campaign on the premise that he would be a successful mayor because labor will listen to one of its own. One of Tuesday's negative mailers came from the Greater Boston Labor Council, a group that endorsed Walsh and with which he has worked for years.
"Those are the exact group of people that you're going to be across the table from when you're mayor," Connolly said near the start of the debate broadcast by WGBH-TV (Channel 2) and WGBH radio. "They're not listening to you now. How do we know they are going to listen to you when you are actually mayor?"
Walsh repeatedly condemned the attacks and said, "I've told the people doing it to stop." He also talked about using his influence as a labor leader to win concessions from unions in the Legislature to reform pension and health insurance systems for public employees.
“I’ve been able to sit down at the table
Connolly kept pushing the prospect of a labor leader making the transition to mayor.
"I don't understand how they are going to listen to you," Connolly said. "It seems like they can't wait to get you at the table."
The hourlong debate marked the second time the two mayoral finalists faced off and both seemed significantly more at ease. Walsh showed flashes of his affable personality, making quips between questions and joking with his opponent. Connolly displayed a litigator's mastery of the issues, methodically speaking on topics from parking to gun violence.
But Walsh used his opponent's legal expertise against him, demanding that Connolly release a list of his law clients. Walsh said he has been fully transparent in his 16 years as a legislator and during his tenure leading the Boston Building Trades.
"I'd like to ask John if he would open up his law practice for the last 12 years and put his clients on the table," Walsh said. "Everything in my life is on the table."
Connolly tried to redirect the question.
"I don't have anything to hide on this," Connolly said. "The most recent year . . . I made $3,500 being an attorney. I focused my time on being the best city councilor I could. Marty, you took three-quarters of your income from labor unions in your leadership roles and then you're up at the State House filing legislation that could have badly damaged the fiscal health of the city of Boston."
Walsh shot back: "John didn't answer the question I asked."
The debate came at a critical time in the race to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino. In last month's preliminary, Walsh had about 1,400 more votes than Connolly as they topped
a 12-candidate field and advanced to the Nov. 5 final election.
But Connolly has maintained a small lead in public polls, and his fund-raising surged in the first half of October, adding almost $620,000 to his campaign coffers with money from fellow lawyers, developers, and others. Walsh, however, has gained momentum with a sweep of endorsements that include many of Boston's black and Latino elected officials.
Walsh has kept pace in the money race with the combination of his own strong fund-raising and help from organized labor. Individual unions can give candidates up to $15,000 and have given $410,000 directly to Walsh's campaign, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Outside groups funded by labor have independently spent almost $1.3 million more on television ads, mailers, and other material promoting Walsh.
Education groups have spent roughly $73,000 supporting Connolly.
On Wednesday, the two candidates clashed politely but also found much common ground. They both avoided combustible issues when asked about closing firehouses or whether East Boston residents should vote in favor of a proposed casino.
They agreed that it was appropriate for some developments to be built without parking. They both have driveways but said that parking spot savers — chairs, toilets, cones — could be used on the street to save spaces after snowstorms. They supported giving tax breaks to keep businesses in Boston. And they both disagreed with laws that single out pit bulls or other specific dog breeds.
But they clashed again over a labor issue, when the debate turned to contract arbitration for public safety unions.
"I want police officers to be well paid, and I want firefighters to be well paid," Connolly said. "But a mayor has to guard the fiscal health of the city. He's got to be independent, and he's got to make balanced decisions to benefit everyone."
Walsh offered a quick response.
"I think there's a clear difference here," Walsh said. "I respect the public employees that work for the City of Boston. John just mentioned about drawing a line. That line is not how you negotiate. You do it by transparency, respect, and you put the cards on the table so you can see exactly what's out there and we can come up with a contract."
The candidates are scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday for a debate sponsored by the NAACP and Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury. Walsh and Connolly have their final televised face-off next Tuesday.
Connolly faced questions about why he speaks more on the campaign trail about his three years as a teacher in the 1990s than his last 12 years as a lawyer. He taught two years at Nativity Mission School, a boys' school for low-income immigrant families in New York City, where he was a full-time volunteer paid in room and board and a small stipend. He then taught one year and coached girls' basketball at Renaissance Charter School in Boston.
"I talk so much about being a teacher because it was the most impactful experience of my life," Connolly said. "When you go into the classroom every day with young people who are facing that achievement gap and you see the challenges that young people face, that stays with you."
The debate ended with the World Series, destined to overshadow the mayoral race as the Red Sox battle the St. Louis Cardinals. The candidates were asked for predictions.
"Come on, I'm playing to the voters here," Connolly said. "We're going to sweep."
Walsh, who wore a Red Sox tie to the debate, had an answer ready.
"Sox in six," Walsh said. "And we're going to have six extra innings games. So John and myself that have these early mornings will have to stay up until 2 in the morning watching these games. We'll get about three hours of sleep."
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.