Globe Editorial

Flaherty finds his voice

October 2, 2009

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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.

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