In what is scheduled to be their final public face-off before voters head to the polls in two weeks, Councilor Tito Jackson scolded Mayor Martin J. Walsh Tuesday for what he described as a poor record on affordable housing and uneven economic development at the expense of the city’s neediest residents.
With Walsh claiming a comfortable lead in the polls, the stakes were high for Jackson to gain momentum in his bid to unseat the incumbent mayor, and he seemed to pounce at every opportunity he could at the hour-long WGBH debate. But in the end, Jackson did little to unsteady the incumbent.
“You need to listen to what’s actually happening,” Jackson told the mayor, denouncing him for failing to recognize a recent NAACP report that graded the mayor harshly on his work on behalf of communities of color. “It’s 218 pages, and you’re not paying attention to what’s going on.”
But Walsh never seemed to move backward, maintaining that he has worked over the last four years on behalf of all residents, even if it has been difficult to overcome long-term obstacles. He said in his nearly four years as mayor the city has made strides on affordable housing, fighting crime, and improving education.
“I won’t deny there are definitely issues we have to deal with, and we deal with them every single day,” the mayor said. “We’ve talked about generational issues that nobody has ever tackled.”
For months, Walsh has been surfing a wave of public confidence. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released earlier this week showed the mayor had a commanding 35 percentage-point lead over Jackson, besting his challenger among every racial group, including black voters. Jackson is the first major black candidate to reach the mayoral finals since 1983.
The NAACP report, also released this week, served as the most disparaging review yet of Walsh’s tenure from an independent organization. Jackson sought to piggyback on the criticism, arguing the report reiterated the points he has made throughout his underdog campaign: That Walsh has not done enough to help blacks and Hispanics in public safety, in education, at City Hall, and in economic development.
Jackson argued that enacting simple policies, such as police body cameras, could help build trust with the community.
“That’s what we’ve seen from this mayor, timid, tepid leadership,” he said.
Tuesday’s debate, moderated by Boston Public Radio hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, is likely the final face-off before the Nov. 7 municipal election. Walsh, with the bargaining power of incumbency at hand, would commit to only two debates.
Jackson, with the end-game of his mayoral campaign at stake, took the opportunity to pounce on Walsh and what he called his failure to work on behalf of all residents. He criticized Walsh for closing the Long Island Bridge, forcing the relocation of hundreds of homeless people and addicts who sought services there, which the councilor said resulted in more homelessness.
Walsh defended the decision, saying the bridge “was crumbling into the ocean.” He vowed to restore the bridge but said the homeless would not relocate to the island, because “we shouldn’t be hiding homeless people, we should be working to get them a home.”
Jackson himself took heat from host Braude, who pointed out the councilor had not released a spending plan for his many city proposals, as promised, by September.
Jackson said he would release his proposed budget in the coming days — one item of which would be to increase school spending by $30 million next year. Walsh shot back that he has already increased school spending $50 million this year.
However, Walsh acknowledged city schools are struggling, particularly high schools. He said the city has worked to increase spending for special education and for lower-performing schools. He pointed to his plan to invest $1 billion to restore city schools.
“We can criticize schools, talk about criticizing them all day long, but we’ve made investments,” Walsh said.
Both candidates agreed that affordable housing is one of the largest challenges.
Walsh referred to a housing plan the city commissioned in 2014 that called for building 53,000 more units by 2030 to address the city’s population boom. He said the city is on track for that goal: 22,000 units have already been permitted and 9,000 have been designated for low- and moderate-income families. Meanwhile, developers have paid in $57 million into an inclusionary development fund that will help the city build more affordable housing.
“We weren’t seeing developers building moderate-, low-income housing in the past, and we’re seeing it today,” Walsh said. “This has to be a city for all people, not a city for wealthy people.”
Jackson said, though, that the city has been too focused on building luxury housing, rather than addressing an immediate need for affordable housing.
“The housing he says he’s building for people he says is affordable, is not affordable to people who need it,” Jackson said. He said he would be open to rent control, but the mayor said he would not support that because it would discourage development.
Under questioning by the moderators, Walsh again refused to say whether he has testified before the federal grand jury that investigated two top City Hall aides who are accused of extorting union jobs from the Boston Calling music festival, saying the case goes to trial in January. He said he would address questions after the trial.
Braude questioned, though, whether the city should be paying the roughly $250,000 annual salary for the aides while they await the trial on administrative leave. Jackson argued that the city does not pay police officers on leave.
Walsh responded, “In the United States of America, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” in an effort to end discussion on the topic.
Braude pointed at Jackson’s repeated statements that the city should not have offered $25 million in incentives for General Electric to relocate to Boston, and he asked the councilor whether the city should be offering similar incentives to Amazon, which the city is looking to attract to Boston.
Jackson said it should not. “Amazon should want to come here, they should want to come to the city of Boston,” he said, criticizing the mayor and the city’s failed efforts to attract the Olympics and a Grand Prix race in South Boston.
“We have a mayor who fast-tracks bids for Amazon, Olympics, Grand Prix, but he slow tracks changes to education and fully funding the Boston schools,” Jackson said.
Walsh said the city never gave any money to General Electric, however, and he said he was the one who chose to end the city’s bid to host the Olympics. He said it would be a mistake not to consider ways to entice Amazon here.
“We’re not going to turn away companies like that,” he said.
If anything, he said, the failed Olympics bid was an opportunity for the city to examine its infrastructure, to identify needed repairs to transportation, and to address housing concerns.
“We have a lot of good things happening in our city,” he said.
In the September preliminary election, Walsh garnered 63 percent of the vote, to Jackson’s 29 percent. Turnout was light, with about 56,000 people casting votes, or 14 percent of city voters.
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