News Analysis

Mayor absorbs opponents’ digs, keeps composure

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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There was only one real issue in the first debate of the Boston mayoral campaign last night: Mayor Thomas M. Menino and his 16 years in office.

With less than three weeks until the preliminary vote that will trim the field to two finalists in the November election, the stakes were sky-high for the three challengers, who are trying to shake up a campaign that dragged through the summer months to the advantage of the well-financed incumbent.

For an hour, Menino, the city’s longest-serving chief executive, parried the thrusts of his opponents, who tried to score points by attacking him on the issues of crime, public education, real estate development, and his management of the city’s finances and bureaucracy. Menino was nicked a few times, but did not appear to be seriously wounded by the shots fired by City Councilors Michael F. Flaherty Jr. and Sam Yoon and businessman Kevin McCrea.

At times, Menino chided his critics, especially McCrea, the least known of the challengers but the chief aggressor, who fired shot after shot at not only Menino, but also the two council rivals, during the debate broadcast live from the studios of WBZ-TV.

When McCrea at one point contended Menino overstated the city’s fiscal problems and claimed the city had a $120 million reserve in the bank, Menino shot back: “This is capital funds we used to pay our bills in city government. . . . Kevin, we’ll give you a lesson in budget management because you don’t understand it.’’

For long stretches, however, the candidates plowed through the minutiae of municipal government, offering statistics about crime, high school dropouts, and the cost of police details at roadwork sites. The debate at times meandered through the workings of City Hall bureaucracy and an array of statistics that probably numbed the minds of many viewers.

McCrea, a South End construction company owner, produced some of the liveliest moments and took some shots at the two councilors, blaming them, along with Menino, for the city’s “stagnation.’’ After Flaherty complained that some parents were unable to place their children in any of their top three choices for public schools, McCrea said the children of Menino, Yoon, and Flaherty all were admitted to their top-choice schools.

“What a miracle,’’ he said. None disputed him.

Throughout the debate, Yoon emphasized his reformer credentials, saying repeatedly that the city needs to change its strong-mayor form of government.

“Mr. Mayor,’’ Yoon, a two-term at-large councilor from Dorchester, said at one point, “you have too much power. . . . Unless we address that, none of the things we talk about in our debate will be solved.’’

WBZ political reporter Jon Keller moderated the debate, which despite the often arcane subject matters, allowed back-and-forth. As a result, Menino spent much of the hour answering his challengers, vigorously at times and often with statistics or a recitation of city accomplishments and programs.

Debating has never been a Menino strong suit, and one goal of last night’s performance was not to lose his composure in the face of attacks. He succeeded. While he at times seemed irked by some of the challengers’ contentions, his responses were generally measured and on point.

Flaherty, a five-term at-large councilor from South Boston who was the most restrained of the challengers, stressed his experience as a prosecutor and called for the Police Department to modernize its crime alert system by using e-mails and text-messaging as other cities do.

As the entrenched incumbent, Menino enjoys enormous advantages, and with polling data suggesting that the electorate holds him in generally high regard despite the effects of the national economic recession, he repeatedly stressed his priority over 16 years to improve the vitality of the city’s neighborhoods. But the challengers attacked him on the issue of real estate development in the city, maintaining it is a closed process that benefits the well connected. Each challenger pledged to dismantle the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the powerhouse agency that combines the functions of planning and economic development under Menino’s control.

McCrea at one point said, “we need to stop the giveaways that are going on here,’’ after he cited the case of a BRA employee and Menino campaign contributor, James Rourke of Hyde Park, who obtained a vacant parcel of city-owned land for $5,000 despite a city-assessed value of $100,000.

“That’s nonsense, you know that,’’ Menino shot back. “Mr. Rourke got an abutter’s lot, land next to a person’s home. . . . We don’t want to maintain that lot.’’

After the debate, the city’s corporation counsel, William Sinnott, said, Rourke “went absolutely by the book to get approval of this thing. Everything was aboveboard and transparent. He filed a conflict-of-interest transparency form.’’