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    A welcome end to a civil campaign

    Some thoughts before the polls open on Tuesday.

     It’s been an energizing race for Boston mayor.

    The electoral challenges Mayor Tom Menino faced in his 20-year term were, on reflection, dull affairs. No fault to those candidates, but when the vote is a foregone conclusion, no one actually is paying attention. This time around, with a new mayor a certainty, there’s been some real intellectual substance from the candidates and real engagement by the electorate. New ideas have been put forth, priorities identified, and people have had to do some hard thinking about what they want Boston’s next chapter to be. It’s been kind of fun. Hey, maybe we should do it more often!

     It’s getting kind of boring.

    On the other hand, enough. The best part of the race was the stretch that ended with the September preliminary, featuring a slew of candidates from interesting backgrounds, almost all of whom came across as credible leaders of the city. Since that vote, the face-off between John Connolly and Marty Walsh has been kind of a grind. They started off being nice to each other but as the days have worn down to a few, there’s been more sniping and less idealism. Fatigue has set in. Let’s get it over with.

     The most important issue has been barely discussed.


    Once newly installed, the first big test for the new mayor will be this: When the first storm arrives, can he get the streets plowed? Forget the grand promises and new programs. “Urban mechanic” Tom Menino figured out early that most people just want a city that works. Pick up trash, shovel walks, keep traffic lights lit, fill potholes. For a variety of reasons, urban mayors these days are more managers than anything else, and we hardly have any idea how either Connolly or Walsh would perform on that score. Whoever wins will be under pressure to install their own; there are a lot of key supporters expecting jobs. But just because you can leaflet a neighborhood doesn’t mean you can run the Public Works Department.

     Leadership means following.

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    The looming possibility of a casino in East Boston has been an issue all year, one on which each candidate has taken a pass. East Boston residents are voting Tuesday to approve it or not, yet when pressed about what they would recommend, both Connolly and Walsh have demurred, offering up instead weak platitudes about respecting the neighborhood’s choice. I understand the politics of the dodge — why wade into a fight your opponent is sure to exploit? — but the lack of leadership on a matter that impacts the entire city is troubling. Chalk it up to the campaign, perhaps, but it raises questions about the political courage of both men.

     They really are different.

    Connolly and Walsh kicked off the final in late September seeming like two white, Irish-American peas in a pod. They don’t appear that way anymore. Significant differences have emerged on everything from temperament to policies to priorities. Where once voters almost saw them as a coin toss — either one would do, which accounted for the large numbers of undecideds — now the lines have hardened and the passions for one or the other have grown. That, of course, is one of the reasons we have political campaigns. They reveal a lot about the candidates.

     Class creeps in.

    In the closing days of the campaign, there has been a shift in strategies from the Walsh camp — he’s run to the left and, in doing so, has tried to portray Connolly as rich, elitist, and out-of-touch. It’s entirely fiction; indeed, Walsh’s compensation — including $175,000 as head of the building trades — dwarfs Connolly’s. Even worse, it’s an effort to create an us-versus-them dynamic that splits the city along a variety of lines: race, ethnicity, geography, education, and even whether one was born in Boston or just moved here. The preliminary race was a model of inclusion. The final has become far more divisive, and Walsh should be ashamed for making it so.

     You call this negative?

    Notwithstanding the above, though, this has been a remarkably civil campaign, especially when compared to other recent statewide or (in particular) national races. Boston’s been lucky.

    Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com