Final Boston Mayoral Debate occurs

Flaherty jabs, but mayor unfazed
Challenger presses attack on insiders; Menino cites programs, city awards

By Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack, Globe Staff | October 20, 2009

Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty Jr., trailing in the polls and facing his last televised opportunity to confront his opponent, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, argued last night that Menino’s City Hall favors politically connected insiders at the expense of everyday Bostonians.

But the four-term mayor, smiling genially and referring to Flaherty by his first name, shrugged off one attack after the next, citing a list of awards given to the city and a flurry of programs launched by his administration to bolster his argument that the city is already working on everything Flaherty proposes to tackle.

In a city renowned as a cradle for revolutionary ideas and innovation, both candidates stuck to mostly small-bore proposals, with Flaherty promising to pick up visiting chief executives at the airport and lamenting the lack of fiber optic communication service, while Menino touted a 15-year-old financial disclosure requirement for city department heads.

The two candidates tussled over education, crime, development, and the city’s handling of public records. But their differences were often expressed in the form of nitty-gritty policy disagreements that might have left some viewers scratching their heads, as they argued about GIC, the state Group Insurance Commission, and whether the City Council should have approved property taxes on utility poles and other telecommunications equipment.

There was a rare moment of direct confrontation when Flaherty asked Menino what letter grade he would assign to the Boston public schools, after reminding viewers that Menino asked voters in 1996 to “judge me harshly’’ on education.

Menino gave himself a B, saying, “I’ll be generous,’’ while Flaherty, decrying the dropout rate and an achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts, said, turning to Menino: “I’ll give you an F.’’

The debate played out before an audience of 200 gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester just two weeks before the Nov. 3 election. The candidates both plan to appear at a MassVote forum on Oct. 27 at Faneuil Hall, but that event is not expected to be televised.

“Folks, the next four years are going to be years of excitement, years of working with all of you to make this a better city when it comes to education, when it comes to a green economy and a safer city,’’ said Menino, 66, who was first elected mayor in 1993, after serving nine years on the City Council. “I ask all of you to work with me to make this a better city, not for some of our people, but for all of your people.’’

Muted debate fritters away televised opportunity

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff | October 20, 2009

With the often heated mayoral campaign roaring into its final fortnight, those watching last night’s televised debate might have expected Michael F. Flaherty Jr. to go on the attack. They might also have expected high drama from Mayor Thomas M. Menino, perhaps in the form of a new policy aimed at the city’s troubled schools or violence-prone neighborhoods.

Instead, each of the candidates assumed roles that might have been scripted at the beginning of the campaign: Flaherty, the cautious challenger from South Boston, and Menino, the often inarticulate defender of an administration that has won widespread support in the neighborhoods because of the mayor’s personal attention to their concerns.

For Flaherty, the muted performance registered by both candidates was probably more harmful. With a recent Globe poll showing him 20 points behind Menino, it was Flaherty who needed a memorable night to shake up the race.

Although Flaherty appeared trimmer and perhaps younger than he has in earlier debates, while Menino appeared more worn, Flaherty failed to seize innumerable opportunities to score points by criticizing the mayor on a variety of subjects.

One prominent example: In the hours before the debate, Boston’s minority police officers announced that they had taken a no-confidence vote on Menino over the weekend, slamming City Hall for what they said is a failure on the part of Menino to diversify the upper ranks of the department. But the incendiary charge went unspoken in the debate, as Flaherty merely repeated past assertions that the city’s homicide rate is too high, while Menino defended his crime-fighting record.

Menino, never a strong debater, was also less than inspiring during the head-to-head encounter at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. But with commanding advantages in the polls and in campaign funds, he did not need to do anything more than offer an adequate defense of his 16 years in office. And he did that.

Most important for the incumbent, he never displayed his trademark temper and shook off each modest Flaherty parry by turning the conversation toward some mayoral accomplishment.

There were some exceptions to the debate’s plodding pace. At one point, Flaherty offered stinging criticism of Menino’s stewardship of the city’s schools, saying: “The mayor had 16 years to fix the Boston public schools. I’d say that’s enough.’’ At that point, he assigned the mayor a grade of F for his work on schools. He also offered a disturbing picture of Boston’s drug addiction problem and promised to be a champion for “treatment on demand.’’

But for the most part, Flaherty failed to put Menino on the spot by drilling home what appeared to be his predominant theme, that Menino would continue to serve only a clique of political supporters.

Menino, meanwhile, missed his chance to defend himself by offering new inspiration for the future.

Indeed, the one-hour encounter was often bogged down in the alphabet soup of city and state agencies, such as the Massachusetts GIC, or Group Insurance Commission, for those voters unfamiliar with the minutiae of health insurance plans for city and state employees.


Flaherty wins in a landslide

UNLIKE MOST debates, there was a clear winner: Michael Flaherty.

EXPECTATIONS: Menino is masterful in driving down expectations - not only for debate, but for governing. Give him credit: he was expected to be abysmal in this debate, yet was merely awful. Flaherty made a compelling case that it’s “time for new leadership’’ and was convincingly mayoral - confident, yet approachable. Flaherty, A-; Menino, D+.

AVOIDING MISTAKES: Menino kept posing questions to Flaherty that allowed him to impress voters with specific ideas for reform and economic growth. Flaherty was gaffe-free. Flaherty, A; Menino, C-.

WINNING UNDECIDEDS: Menino has little to pitch to disenchanted voters. It would be unsporting to say: “Please don’t vote.’’ Flaherty made clear Boston needs a comeback strategy and he’s the catalyst for change. Flaherty, A-; Menino, D.

SOUND BITES: Questioned about corruption charges, Menino said, “We haven’t been charged with anything,’’ reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s infamous, “I am not a crook.’’ Flaherty promised to “end the pay-to-play system.’’ Flaherty, B+; Menino, D-.

CREDIBILITY: Menino blames Boston’s problems on the economy and Legislature. Flaherty indicts the status quo with stats. Flaherty, B+; Menino, D+.

CONTROL THE AGENDA: Flaherty made Menino talk about issues he’d rather discuss after the vote. Menino often seemed defensive. Flaherty, A-; Menino, D-.

HUMOR: Neither candidate will be competing in comedy clubs. Flaherty, D-; Menino D-.

NEW IDEAS: Flaherty has a full suggestion box. Menino is suspicious of new ideas, especially one called “new mayor.’’ Flaherty, B+; Menino, D-.

And the winner? Flaherty B+, Menino D+.