Michael Flaherty and Thomas Menino go at it in one-on-one debate

Flaherty jabs, Menino counters
In mayoral debate, candidates cast the city in differing lights

In an hourlong debate that was by turns civil and testy last night, Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty Jr. aggressively attacked Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s record on crime and education, as well as his leadership style, while the four-term mayor defended his record on every front.

The two men painted starkly different portraits of the city, with Flaherty saying the streets are “filthy,’’ fire equipment is “in deplorable condition,’’ the mayor is “incapable of bringing about reform’’ of public safety, and that, in the area of education, “there has not been leadership in Boston for over 16 years.’’

Adversaries played their roles well.

Menino had an answer to each attack, ticking off a list of awards for the city’s progress on everything from the diversity of its commissions to the state of its schools, citing programs for a variety of chronic problems and urging his critics to “ask the people in those neighborhoods who has served them over the last 16 years.’’

The toughest exchange of the night came over Flaherty’s decision to forge an alliance with one of his preliminary election rivals, Councilor at Large Sam Yoon. Flaherty has promised to appoint Yoon to a new post of deputy mayor.

The two men are now campaigning as a team, and Yoon even showed up at the debate last night, sending Tweets on Flaherty’s behalf.

Menino accused Flaherty of promising a job to Yoon in exchange for votes from his supporters.

“I think it’s jobs for votes, trying to promise Sam Yoon, ‘You’ll have a job in my administration if I win,’ hoping to get the votes of Sam Yoon to be with Michael Flaherty during this campaign,’’ Menino said. “Sam Yoon is a good kid, but you don’t make appointments and deals during the campaign.’’

Challenger attacks, mayor parries, both score points

Challenger Michael F. Flaherty played the role of the relentless prosecutor, and he played it well, constantly pressing on issues ranging from public safety to secrecy at City Hall to a so-called “naughty list’’ kept by the mayor.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino played the role of the defendant, and, unfortunately for Flaherty, he, too, played it well, offering a series of rousing retorts and displaying an impressive command of his policies and programs.

Last night’s debate was, by every measure, a satisfying and spirited exchange that will probably set a combative tone for the final month of a historic campaign in which Menino is seeking an unprecedented fifth term.

The debate, an informal encounter around a circular table in a television studio that included taped questions from Boston voters, was crucial for Flaherty and his hopes of converting a second-place showing in last month’s four-way preliminary election into a successful bid for City Hall.

He was impressive when criticizing Menino for lax enforcement of a Boston jobs policy that requires contractors to award 50 percent of their jobs to Boston residents, 25 percent to persons of color, and 10 percent to women.

“As mayor of Boston, Michael Flaherty will actually enforce the Boston jobs residency policy,’’ Flaherty said.

Flaherty also repeatedly criticized Menino for his oversight of the city’s public schools, at one point underscoring his own effort to establish a program to prepare high school students for college entrance exams, or SATs. “In Boston for the last 16 years, it’s been just about getting kids to the end of the 12th grade,’’ Flaherty said.

Menino, who appeared surprisingly comfortable considering his renowned reticence to engage his opponents in political debate, slipped from one topic to the next with ease.

He accused Flaherty of offering Councilor at Large Sam Yoon a job just to win votes. He pointed to numerous police programs that he said have contributed to a decline in violent crime.

Editorial

CITY COUNCILOR Michael Flaherty emerged from last night’s mayoral debate looking and sounding like a man who could lead Boston. During the hourlong discussion, Flaherty didn’t so much diminish incumbent Thomas Menino as elevate himself.

It was a riveting hour, courtesy of two candidates who know the city’s challenges and capabilities well. Flaherty was especially effective when prodding the mayor’s spotty record on school improvement and linking the quality of public education to the decision of families to remain in the city. Less convincing was his portrait of Boston as a dangerous city, given Menino’s strong overall record on crime. Flaherty’s worst moment came when he avoided questions about his endorsement by the city’s firefighters union, which is demanding outrageous sums to accept random drug and alcohol testing. Menino, who is holding the line against the grasping union, came across as the responsible steward of public funds.

Menino performed well throughout the debate. Called to account for problems that linger 16 years into his tenure, he cogently recounted the many programs he has implemented in response. Still, Flaherty was crisper in nearly every encounter. His oft-repeated use of “under a Flaherty administration’’ gave the idea real heft.

Both candidates went on the attack. Menino accused Flaherty of trading “jobs for votes’’ by promising a deputy mayor position to City Councilor Sam Yoon, who finished third in the preliminary election. Flaherty accused Menino of “playing politics with public safety’’ by ignoring firefighters’ calls for a stand-alone hazardous materials unit. But the harsh exchanges in this debate were secondary to the weighing of differences on specific issues. Menino offered a deeper analysis of how far a city can go to help homeless people who often reject help. Flaherty issued a stronger call to raise the cap on charter schools.

Flaherty’s strong performance shows that Menino has a tough competitor on his hands.