Mayoral candidates, all on stage for first time, turn up the heat on casino bid

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Right out the gate, all 12 of the candidates running for mayor—gathered for the first time on one stage—launched into a fiery debate Monday evening over whether there should be a citywide vote on a proposed casino in Boston, one of the most contentious issues in the campaign.

“I felt like a needed football helmet for this one,’’ said City Councilor John Connolly, after the one-hour free-for-all, which was televised on New England Cable News. “It moved at the speed of light and it felt at times like an argument at the dinner table among family.”

The debate—serious, contentious, and highly defensive—exposed flaws in the mayoral candidates’ demeanor and record. But it also displayed passion among the hopefuls who had previously been cordial to one another.

The debate opened with a question to Connolly, asking him defend his position that only East Boston residents—and not the rest of the city—should vote on the casino plan.

“They are going to live with this casino in a way no one else in the city can,” he said. “I think the right thing to do here is have an East Boston vote.”

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley argued that there needs to be a citywide debate, and vote, on the issue.

Bill Walczak, who ran a Dorchester nonprofit health center, said most of those who would be hurt by a casino would be low-income residents.

“We need to make sure this is the right idea,’’ he said. “And it isn’t the right idea.”

Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative, said that if a casino comes to Boston, she would take some of the revenue to help fight crime.

“Let’s put it this way, if the people of East Boston did not want a casino and the rest of the city wanted a casino, would we actually ram that casino down their throats?”

Held at the Modern Theater in downtown Boston, the candidates tackled labor, crime, and diversity in the upper ranks of the Boston Police Department. All but one of the participants urged Mayor Thomas M. Menino to slow down on housing, development, and the search for a new superintendent, before he exits office.

But the gloves came off when former school board member John Barros, who ran a Dudley Street nonprofit, responded to a question about whether some candidates should bow out. Golar Richie has had to face assertions that members of her campaign have urged other minority candidates to exit the contest.

“Voters have a right to decide who they should support and who should run, but no one had a right to try to bully anyone out the race,’’ Barros said.

Golar Richie, who was particularly vocal, quickly responded, saying she would never support anyone bullying.

“If anyone from my campaign is bullying anyone in this race, I would not want them to be associated with this campaign.”

The forum’s moderators—Boston Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld and NECN’s political reporter Alison King – also did not let up. They confronted the candidates over gaps in their records that could be the Achilles heels of their campaigns.

State Representative Martin J. Walsh was pressed on if he, as mayor, would be able to stand up to unions, which have donated big to his campaign.

“I’m proud of my record with labor. I wear it with a badge of honor,’’ he said, noting his service on the board of a neighborhood charter school.

Conley, whose children were educated in Catholic schools, was pressed on why he did not feel his children should have gone to the city’s public schools.

He explained that it was a personal decision for him and his wife, and they wanted to build up religion and character in their children.

“Look, my wife and I were willing to roll pennies to sacrifice,” he said. “My parents did the same for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t care for children [in public schools]. Of course I do.”

A Suffolk University student asked candidate Charles Clemons to respond to a question about drug regulations, particularly after the recent deaths involving the street drug “Molly.”

Clemons responded by saying, “Thank you Molly for asking that question.” Her name was not Molly.

Undeterred, he said he would work to build more trust between the police and the larger community.

The only Republican candidate, David James Wyatt, was not asked a question, and did not comment on one, for more than 45 minutes into the session. He seemed startled when asked why he should be mayor, and struggled to come up with a string of coherent sentences.