Boston’s last mayoral debate turned personal Tuesday night as Councilor at Large John R. Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh attacked each other’s profession, desperate for an edge in a tight race marked by few major policy differences.
Connolly repeatedly referred to Walsh’s career as a union official, noting that he was paid $175,000 a year as head of the Boston Building Trades while he served as state representative. Unions and outside groups funded by organized labor have spent $2.2 million supporting Walsh’s bid for mayor, and Connolly cited legislation filed by Walsh on behalf of the firefighters union that would eliminate City Council oversight of disputed contracts.
“If you can’t be independent up on Beacon Hill,” Connolly said, “how are you going to be independent at City Hall?”
Walsh made several disparaging remarks about attorneys, indirectly referring to Connolly’s profession, which the city councilor rarely talks about on the campaign trial.
“We don’t need another lawyer in City Hall right now watching our purse strings in the City of Boston,” Walsh said.
The face-off marked the last major televised debate of the mayoral campaign with a week until the Nov. 5 election. Both candidates have described the race to replace Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has held office for 20 years, as a dead heat.
The candidates sparred for an hour in the studios of WHDH-TV (Channel 7). The debate was sponsored by a consortium of Boston media and carried live on four television channels and four radio stations, making it the most widely aired of the debates.
The candidates ticked off bits of their biographies that have become talking points on the campaign trail. Walsh described himself as a child of immigrants who battled cancer as a child and alcoholism as an adult. Connolly mentioned that he taught children from all Boston neighborhoods for a year in the 1990s at a charter school.
In this debate like the others, Walsh and Connolly again agreed on a range of issues, from the need for diversity in the upper ranks of the Boston Police Department to support for small businesses. They both said charter schools can be laboratories that help improve all schools. Both candidates did their best to avoid saying how they would vote on a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs. (Walsh ultimately conceded he would vote for the casino if he lived in East Boston; Connolly insisted it was up to local residents.)
The moderator pushed the candidates about the search for a new school superintendent. Walsh said he would look outside the Boston public schools for a successor to Carol R. Johnson. Connolly said he would commission a broad search for a “nontraditional” superintendent but said he would also look at candidates from within the School Department.
The night began on a sharp note when moderator R.D. Sahl asked both candidates why the race became negative in the past few weeks. Outside groups funded by organized labor mailed brochures critical of Connolly’s family and included inaccurate information about the New York City mission school where he taught for two years in the 1990s. Walsh has accused Connolly of using a telephone poll to propagate negative information about the state representative.
“I just think it’s the tension around the race,” Walsh said. “I’ve asked the group that sent the fliers out to stop sending it out, and to my knowledge they’ve stopped.”
Walsh said that Connolly’s campaign “condoned a negative push poll” that “was an attack on me in certain parts of the city of Boston.” Connolly rebutted Walsh’s claim and said that unions mailed tens of thousands of brochures “that savagely attacked me and my family” and “were filled with lies.”
Connolly repeatedly noted that Walsh refused to sign a pledge against outside money, which has flooded the race like never before and fueled negative attacks against him.
“Representative Walsh opened the door to this type of campaign when he wouldn’t sign an agreement to get outside money out of this race,” said Connolly, who has benefited from $300,000 in outside spending by education groups.
The sharpest exchange came over a bill Walsh filed on Beacon Hill on behalf of the firefighters union that would have eliminated the requirement that the City Council approve arbitration awards for police and firefighters. Under his proposal, arbitration rulings would be final.
“Marty has over $2 million in union money coming into his campaign,” Connolly said. “He’s made $175,000 in 2012 as a union leader, and as a state representative he’s up in the State House filing this legislation that would hurt the City of Boston.”
Walsh pushed back.
“Here goes John again exaggerating the facts,” Walsh said. “First of all, I’m proud to have the support of working men and women. John’s figure of $2 million is not accurate, however. I don’t know where he’s making that up.”
The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance shows that outside groups funded by labor have spent $1.7 million on commercials and paid canvassers for Walsh. Additionally, this year unions have donated $550,000 directly to Walsh’s campaign. Unions can donate up to $15,000, far more than the $500 limit for individuals. Roughly $481,000 of Walsh’s union money has come in checks larger than $500.
Walsh also addressed the larger question about whether his status as a union official would compromise his ability to fairly negotiate contracts with unionized city employees.
“Let me be clear,” Walsh said. “I will be able to get through a negotiation because of the experience I have because I have trust on the other side of the table. That’s something that doesn’t happen today in the city.”
Connolly appeared keen to counter any perceptions that he is antiunion. “Marty and I both believe in unions,” the city councilor said, “but there’s a difference here on priorities.”
The night ended, albeit briefly, with talk of baseball.
“Go Red Sox,” Walsh said.
“I think we can all agree on that,” said Sahl.Wesley Lowery of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.