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Boston’s mayoral race: a guide for the perplexed

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 13, 2013 10:20 AM

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On Sept. 24, Boston voters will whittle a field of 12 mayoral candidates down to just two who will run off in November. About a third of the city’s voters are undecided and probably another third are squishy when it comes to support for their candidate. People who have lived in the city and followed politics for decades have told me they’re having a tough time sorting out the candidates who share many similar positions on the issues. Imagine, then, the confusion of voters who are either new to the city or just recently started to pay attention to the race.

There are no villains in this field. All of the viable candidates could be described as moderate or liberal. And even candidates whose names are closely aligned with a cause, such as organized labor or expansion of state charter schools over the objections of organized labor, have staked out nuanced positions. Voters can turn to the candidates’ websites to find white papers, blueprints, and other detailed documents on major issues.

My view? Bostonians could sleep soundly if any of six or seven of these candidates were to win. It’s almost laughable to think that just a few months ago people were worried that no one of substance might emerge to replace Mayor Menino, who is retiring after five terms in office.

Still, a lot of voters are openly asking for help. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I can offer some pointers to help understand the candidates, and where they’re coming from. In that spirit, here’s my alphabetical guide for the perplexed:

Anyone drawn to social justice causes and eager to be part of electing the city’s first Hispanic mayor will want to learn more about City Councilor Felix Arroyo. I have no doubt that Arroyo will prioritize the needs of the city’s poor. But it remains an open question as to whether the 34-year-old Arroyo has sufficient experience to manage a $2.6 billion municipal budget.

Former member of the appointed School Committee and nonprofit executive John Barros is smart, dignified, and self-made. Barros, 40, has had a hand in restoring one of the poorest sections of Roxbury. But he has surprised me and many others with his desire to bring new business to downtown Boston. Barros, who is the son of Cape Verdean immigrants, is causing a lot of people to sit up and take notice. He should appeal to voters who favor underdogs, especially talented ones.

Mayoral candidate Dan Conley, 54, is a first-rate district attorney. If public safety dominates your concerns, then he certainly belongs at or near the top of the list. Conley can hold his own on other citywide issues, including education and fiscal management. He would be an all-around safe pick for voters who value mature, if uninspired, leadership.

City Councilor John Connolly, 40, has staked out public education as his key issue. Anyone with school-aged children will want to give special consideration to his campaign. He makes a powerful pitch to the city’s middle class. But he is equally serious about helping low-income families climb the economic ladder through better education. Connolly scores high on my political courage index as the sole candidate to declare for the office before Mayor Menino announced his retirement.

It has become trite to identify district City Councilor Rob Consalvo, 44, as a younger, physically fitter version of Mayor Menino. But there is more than a grain of truth to the claim. Consalvo shares Menino’s populist touch and his love of manipulating the nuts and bolts of municipal government. Voters who can’t bear the thought of Menino leaving office can try to keep the streak alive through Consalvo.

Charlotte Golar Richie, 54, has a great resume that includes experience as a state representative, city department head, and nonprofit executive. The possibility of electing the city’s first woman and African American mayor was generating lots of buzz when she announced her entry into the race in April. But she has run a lackluster campaign. So marginal, in fact, that I’ve started hearing legitimate questions about her desire to lead. Right now, her campaign is more symbolic than substantive.

District City Councilor Michael Ross, 41, has never become a creature of City Hall despite more than a decade on the council representing the Back Bay. Newcomers to the city who wonder why there is a dearth of entertainment venues and late night transportation options will want to explore Ross’s solutions. So will entrepreneurs who favor regional business solutions. Ross is pinning his hopes on younger Bostonians who share his can-do attitude and older Bostonians who are tired of seeing all of the political power concentrated in a few, politically muscular sections of the city.

Bill Walczak, 59, is another underdog who deserves serious consideration despite never having run before for elected office. His idealism led him to found a neighborhood health center in Dorchester during the 1970s. His pragmatism enabled him to expand it into a first rate institution for medical and educational opportunities. Walczak stands apart from the field in his ability to manage large organizations. Voters who favor substance over style should find his candidacy especially appealing.

State Representative Martin Walsh, 46, is a survivor of childhood cancer and recovering alcoholic who has no equal when it comes to understanding the plight of struggling Bostonians. Walsh’s deep ties to organized labor scare some voters who worry about the health of the city’s reserves should he win. But working-class Bostonians adore his politics. Even people who disagree with his policies don’t have a bad word to say about him personally. He’s the character candidate.

The remainder of the field includes two gadflies and one veteran city councilor. Radio host Charles Clemons is an amiable gentleman with a spiritual bent. Former Boston teacher David Wyatt offers nothing of substance. City Councilor Charles Yancey boasts three decades on the job but not a great deal to show for it in terms of pushing the city forward.

Good luck.

Lawrence Harmon is a Globe columnist.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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