First Boston Mayoral Debate occurs

Menino’s foes fire away in debate
Three attack mayor on nearly all fronts

By Donovan Slack and Michael Levenson, Globe Staff | September 3, 2009

The three challengers seeking to unseat Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston took turns attacking his record on education, development, and public safety last night in the first debate of this year’s mayoral contest, saying city schools are failing, tax breaks are unfairly being doled out to developers, and too many young people are dying violently in city streets.

Perhaps the most pointed volleys in the fast-moving, freewheeling debate focused on fairness and accountability at City Hall.

South End businessman Kevin McCrea called City Hall “corrupt,’’ accusing Menino of giving away multimillion-dollar tax breaks to the rich and valuable land to connected insiders. Councilor Michael F. Flaherty asserted that getting permits at City Hall hinged on whom you know. And Councilor Sam Yoon called for an overhaul of Boston’s strong-mayor form of government that has placed so much power in Menino’s hands.

Menino, who is often easily flustered and angered when challenged, maintained his composure throughout, brushing away each barb with pronouncements about sweeping initiatives and awards and statistics that he said show the city is better off today than when he took office. The mayor celebrated neighborhood crime-watch groups, green-job training, and affordable housing programs, and he outright denied allegations of corruption or favoritism.

“That’s nonsense,’’ Menino said at one point. “You know that, and my record shows it.’’

The televised debate, the first of three expected before the general election in November, was moderated by WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller. Much of the broadcast was dominated by rapid-fire answers, responses, and spirited debate among the four candidates, who together logged more than 60 statements during the hourlong broadcast.

One City Hall watchdog, Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, likened the event to a shotgun blast, saying it was “all over the place.’’

The candidates did address some significant issues, if only in short blurbs.

All three challengers lambasted Menino for his approach to development and called for the elimination of the city’s semiautonomous planning and development agency, the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

A weary performance by Menino

September 3, 2009

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino woke up at 3 a.m. before his first debate before the Sept. 22 preliminary election. It could have been a premonition that three guys were after him. And they were.

Menino took something of a beating last night from his challengers - Kevin McCrea and city councilors Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon - during an hour-long televised debate on WBZ-TV. McCrea hit him with as yet unsubstantiated charges of City Hall corruption. Yoon, a second term councilor, scolded him like an imperious IT guy for failing to bring information technology at City Hall into the 21st century. And Flaherty, who has served on the council since 2000, prodded Menino on his failure to make good on efforts to bring major improvements to the city’s schools or stand up consistently for residency requirements for city employees.

Menino was ineffective in the debate. Had he been that ineffective in office, voters would have given up on him long before his fourth term. Menino didn’t want to get too bogged down in arcane details, one of his tendencies during debates. And he didn’t want the camera to capture him looking too dismissive of his opponents, another tendency. He did neither. But his overall effort was flat. He offered no on-air defense against McCrea’s charge that the Boston Redevelopment Authority handed the owners of the One Beacon Street tower a 40-year tax exemption for no good reason. He was ineffective when parrying Flaherty’s charge that Menino’s support for an increase in the meals and hotel tax would hurt small businesses. And he allowed Yoon, a youthful 39, to make him look old, but not very wise.

Menino will need to make a much more spirited defense of his record when he faces his challengers again on Sept. 10. Yoon repeatedly accused Menino of having too much power. The mayor has exercised that power in ways that raised the quality of life for many Bostonians. But you never would have known it last night.