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.