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Scot Lehigh

A good night for the challenger

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / October 20, 2009

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SCORE THIS one for Michael Flaherty.

It wasn’t a knockout, to be sure. But throughout the course of last night’s mayoral debate, Flaherty regularly outpointed incumbent Thomas M. Menino.

From education to public safety to development to the mayor’s relative lack of high-level minority appointments, he pressed Menino on his weak points, coming across as a challenger with a good grasp of city issues and an impatience for change.

And more often than not, Flaherty gave viewers a reasonable sense of how he’d try to do better: fighting to lift the cap on charter schools, adopting predictable rules for and an even-handed approach toward developers, hiring an administration whose racial makeup mirrored that of the city, and so forth.

Menino seemed complacent about the state of the city - even when professing he wasn’t. “I’m not satisfied,’’ he said of his own record on diversity. But how seriously can you take that, coming from a mayor who has been in office for 16 years?

Challenged by Flaherty to specify his biggest mistake, Menino couldn’t dredge up anything beyond not having made state leaders realize that Boston deserves even more local aid. A similarly revealing moment come when Flaherty asked Menino to grade himself on the city’s schools.

When Menino initially ducked the question, Flaherty promptly awarded him an F, which was unfair enough to make you frown. But when the mayor then countered by asserting that he deserved a B+, before oh-so-modestly lowering his self-evaluation to a B, you couldn’t help shaking your head.

It remains to be seen whether voters will prove as admiring as Menino is of himself. This much, however, is clear: Flaherty finally established himself as a plausible replacement for the long-serving incumbent.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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