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    Edge to Connolly

    John Connolly, left, and Martin Walsh met Tuesday in their first debate of the general election campaign.
    Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff
    John Connolly, left, and Martin Walsh met Tuesday in their first debate of the general election campaign.

    Like two nervous novice boxers, Boston mayoral candidates John Connolly and Marty Walsh spent long rounds of Tuesday’s debate reluctant to engage with each other in a pointed or sharp way.

    But when Connolly finally found his footing, he won the only memorable exchange of the evening — and with it the debate itself — by pointing out two recent instances where Walsh has put labor’s specific interests over the general interest of taxpayers.

    By spotlighting those, Connolly highlighted his rival’s biggest vulnerability: A relationship with unions that is so cozy it calls into question whether Walsh, a former union official, could be tough or independent enough to be an effective fiscal steward for the city.


    During the 2011 struggle to bring lavish municipal health benefits more into line with the plans state workers get, Walsh filed legislation stipulating that if city unions and municipal management couldn’t agree on plan changes, the matter would go to arbitration. Although Walsh tried to obscure the issue, had his legislation passed, it clearly would have undermined the reform effort led by Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

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    Connolly then linked that legislation to another bill Walsh has filed, which would eliminate any City Council review of arbitration awards and instead make an arbitrator’s decision binding on the city. As Connolly noted, that would have meant that Boston had no recourse against outsized arbitration awards like those that Boston Firefighters Local 718 won in 2010 and which the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association recently received.

    Walsh’s basic response was to insist that he could get contracts done at the bargaining table and thus avoid arbitration altogether. Given the recent history of labor relations in Boston, that’s just not persuasive.

    This issue is not going away. Walsh will have to find a way to address it — or see his candidacy suffer from that failure.

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