In first mayoral debate, Connolly criticizes Walsh for outside spending on his campaign

City Councilor John R. Connolly criticized State Representative Martin J. Walsh’s acceptance of outside spending on his campaign and questioned his strong union ties in a sharp-elbowed exchange in an otherwise low-key Boston mayoral debate tonight.

“I’m just concerned that when your campaign is taking over a million dollars in outside money and when you also work in two roles for these unions — that will influence what you do when you’re mayor,” Connolly said. “And we’ve seen that it certainly influences the legislation that you file.”

Walsh has worked as both a union official and a state lawmaker championing labor at the same time, only leaving his union post when he entered the mayor’s race. He declined to respond to that particular verbal volley from Connolly.

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Outside groups have now spent more than $1 million supporting Walsh during the race, vastly outpacing the approximately $60,000 of outside spending supporting Connolly, the Globe reported last week.

Connolly criticized Walsh’s support of legislation that would remove the need for City Council approval of arbitration awards for police and firefighters. The issue has been in the news recently because of an arbitrator’s recent ruling that would give police a 13.5 percent raise in salaries over six years and that, according to Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration, would boost the total pay hike to 25.4 percent.

Connolly said, “If Representative Walsh had his way, he would have taken the City Council’s final review of all of these contracts away,” handing the taxpayers a hefty bill.

Walsh said he had submitted legislation on Beacon Hill that would have provided a way to discourage contract talks from going to arbitration.

“There’s a way to avoid these negotiations to go to arbitration, and my legislation does that. And as mayor of the city of Boston, I won’t need my legislation to do that, I’ll make it happen,” he said.

“We need to be able to work these contracts out and I, as mayor, will work these contracts out, whether it’s the police contract, the fire contract, pension contract, retiree contract, or health care contract. I have those relationships that I’ll be able to come up with a good solid plan for the city of Boston,” he said.

The two men also addressed a wide range of other issues, including how they would find money to extend the school day, their views on police misconduct investigations, sexual education and contraceptives in schools, the problem of foreclosures, and how the city could raise new revenues.

Connolly, who has promised to be an “education mayor,” highlighted his three years of teaching experience and subsequent work on education issues.

Walsh cited his State House experience, including votes on education and economic development, and said he would be a mayor who knows “real-life challenges” and understands “the struggles of the kids in our city.”

It was the first head-to-head debate for the two candidates. Polls have shown Connolly with a lead, but Walsh has recently won a string of coveted endorsements and polls have shown a substantial chunk of the electorate remains undecided.

The two men were the two top vote-getters in a crowded field in the Sept. 24 preliminary election. Connolly placed second behind Walsh, with just 1,400 fewer votes.

The one-hour debate, moderated by WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller, featured questions from Boston Globe reporter Akilah Johnson. It had tough competition for viewers from the final innings of the nailbiter third game of the Red Sox’s American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.

The debate is the first of four expected before the Nov. 5 general election.

The winner will succeed long-time Mayor Menino, who, after being beset with a series of ailments, decided not to seek a sixth term.

No matter who wins, the city is certain to return to its tradition of having an Irish-American mayor, which had been broken by the 20-year reign of Menino, an Italian-American.

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