With a month until the preliminary election, Boston’s mayoral race remains fully, vibrantly open. Anyone who says they know who’ll be the two finalists is just guessing. It’s truly rare to find an election for a major office that is so loosely defined in the public mind just a month before voting. That’s partly because the 12 candidates haven’t spent a lot of energy differentiating themselves from each other — and that may not be such a bad thing. The time that might have been spent on politicizing their differences has instead been spent on crowd-sourcing a new agenda for Boston. The city may not know who its next leader will be, but it already knows many of the changes the next mayor will bring to City Hall.
The candidates joke that they appear together so many times that they can parrot each other’s opening statements and positions. But they are absorbing each other’s messages as well, especially the ones that make for a healthier and happier city. City councilor John Connolly has set the educational agenda for the campaign. City councilor Michael Ross has served the same function for development by challenging the current “build first, plan second’’ mindset. Former School Committee member John Barros has reminded voters and fellow candidates that many Bostonians still depend on human services, including mental health for students. State Representative Martin Walsh has kept housing needs front and center. And city councilor Robert Consalvo has spurred discussion on the ways that new technologies can speed the delivery of city services, such as expanding the sensor system that immediately informs police of the location of gunshots.
Whoever wins will surely borrow from the platforms and perspectives of his or her rivals, and it’s already clear that consensus among the candidates is strong on the following issues:
■ More planning for neighborhood development. A comprehensive process, such as that completed in the Fenway, gives neighbors the full seat at the table that they demand, and the assurances that their own communities won’t be changed by the whim of some developer or City Hall planner. But by creating a master plan that sets aside areas for larger-scale development, and spells out the improvements that are necessary to accommodate it, developers can have the predictable landscape that they demand, without having to worry about battling with angry neighbors or seeking favors from City Hall.
■ Greater diversity in the police department, to enhance community policing. The candidates, for the most part, believe that the Civil Service test used for promotions has outlived its usefulness. A pencil and paper test is a weak method to identify effective police managers. The next mayor will do more to elevate talented officers based on experience and leadership skills.
■ Expanded access to two years of pre-kindergarten. The next mayor will be on the lookout for a school superintendent who is committed to creating more classroom space for 3- and 4-year-olds in the city.
■ Deeper mental-health screening, backed up by additional social services, in elementary schools. The Menino administration put a lot of effort into redeeming high school students on the verge of dropping out. The next mayor will be looking for ways to prevent such predicaments in the first place. Candidates including Barros and community health care expert Bill Walczak have emphasized the need to identify the most visibly troubled 8-year-olds before they become old enough to join gangs and come to the attention of the criminal justice system.
■ Additional late-night transportation options, happy hours in downtown bars, and additional liquor licenses in outlying city neighborhoods. The candidates agree that the growing cadre of young workers in the city’s innovation economy need some light distraction to balance their heavy workloads. This isn’t just a matter of catering to younger Bostonians; it’s an economic issue for the city. Young innovators are going elsewhere because of Boston’s perceived “fun” deficit.
In the final month before the preliminary election, the candidates will compete for the support of the one-third of the electorate that remains undecided. As the better-funded campaigns take to the airwaves, expect to hear more from them about personal experiences, especially as they relate to honesty, commitment, ability to delegate, and other leadership qualities that might help them stand apart.
But when the election is over, it should be clear that the more productive days of the campaign were those of the summer, when, in forum after forum, a smart and diverse group of candidates fed off each others’ ideas and experiences — and those of their audiences — and came up with a bold new vision for the city they hope to lead.