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Menino fires back at challengers

Exchanges get heated at forum for candidates

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 4, 2009

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s three challengers hammered him last night over a lack of minority workers on Boston construction sites, possible misspending of federal housing grants, and the uneven quality of the city’s public schools in a rollicking forum that exposed far more raw emotions than Wednesday’s televised debate.

Menino defended himself against accusation after accusation, citing programs and statistics that he said show the city is making progress on a variety of longstanding problems. But unlike in Wednesday’s debate, he grew more flustered at the constant attacks, rolling his eyes at points, sighing, and snapping at his opponents when they leveled charges.

“I can’t get involved in these personality issues,’’ the mayor said at one point, before returning to his stock message. “It’s about moving Boston forward.’’

The presence of a live audience of several hundred mostly minority voters added a human element to the forum. It also made the candidates focus for long stretches on the city’s inability to uphold the Boston Jobs Policy, which requires that city job sites employ at least 50 percent Boston residents, 25 percent minorities, and 10 percent women.

“If I go by one more construction site with trucks with license plates from Rhode Island and New Hampshire, I’m going to lose it,’’ Councilor Michael F. Flaherty declared. “It’s time we had a mayor who’s going to enforce the Boston Jobs Policy.’’

Councilor Sam Yoon vowed that, as mayor, he would launch a website to publicize the names of contractors who do not hire the requisite number of residents, minorities, and women.

“We need to shame contractors who aren’t compliant,’’ Yoon said. “And you can check for yourselves, do the math. Put that information out there.’’

Businessman Kevin McCrea said he would force contractors who do not comply to “put money in Madison Park High School for job training or they won’t get the next city contract.’’

McCrea also held up his experience as the owner of a small construction company, saying he regularly complies with the jobs policy. “People say working for me is like working for the United Nations,’’ he said.

Menino defended the city’s compliance rate, pointing to some projects - such as the construction of police headquarters - that met the requirements.

“Our city projects routinely surpass the goal of number of workers for people of color,’’ Menino said. “We’re always working to increase that number. . . . Can we do better? Yes, we can.’’

Menino had not originally planned to attend the forum, at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury. Earlier this summer, his campaign said the sponsor, the nonprofit voting rights group MassVote, lacked the heft to produce a major campaign event.

But snubbing it would have carried political risks. The forum was cosponsored by a long list of groups representing minority residents, including the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Chinese Progressive Association, and the NAACP. Late last month, Menino quietly relented and told the organizers he would attend.

Yoon, the city’s first Asian-American city councilor, was particularly impassioned at points, rising from his chair to berate the mayor and mock him for confusing US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“Right, right,’’ Yoon said, his voice dripping with sarcasm when Menino made the slipup. “Donovan versus Duncan.’’

That moment came after Yoon chided the mayor over a recent federal audit of the city’s handling of housing grants, which found questionable accounting and project bidding practices.

Menino said he spoke to Donovan about the audit. “It’s not that anybody’s doing anything wrong,’’ Menino said. “He assures me it’s a procedural thing.’’

Some of the sharpest exchanges had nothing to do with policy. Toward the end of the forum, for example, after Menino defended the city schools by pointing to a national award that they were given several years ago, Flaherty said the schools were nothing to celebrate.

“As mayor, I would have given the prize back,’’ Flaherty said.

Menino shot back: “You’re an expert on education, Michael? You just talk about it.’’

And Flaherty hushed him: “I have the floor now, mayor.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.