Connolly and Walsh discuss city’s communities of color in mayoral race debate

Boston’s two candidates for mayor pledged Wednesday night that their administrations would be more representative of the city, with about half of appointees being people of color. They also promised to bring jobs to struggling neighborhoods and to move aggressively to close the achievement gap between students.

In the third face-off of their campaign, state Representative Martin J. Walsh and City Councilor John R. Connolly sat beside each other, agreeing that there are too many inequities that exist in communities of color compared to the rest of the city.

Titled “Two Candidates, One Boston, Your Choice!” the debate, shown live on Boston Neighborhood Network Television, focused on issues affecting communities of color. It was added to the candidates’ schedule after some prodding by civil rights and community organizations, but no one needed to nudge the candidates to talk about issues of race and diversity Wednesday night.

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“We need to talk more about racism. We need to talk more about institutional, systemic racism and the role it plays in our society,” Connolly said. “Communities of color don’t need to talk about it so much; you live it every day. White Bostonians need to talk about it. That’s the one thing that Mayor Walsh or Mayor Connolly can get done.”

Walsh said as the head of the Boston Building Trades, he often visited the Boston Redevelopment Authority and was dismayed by the lack of diversity. “I would see people in the hallways, and they looked like me. We need to change that. We need to hold people’s feet to the fire.”

Unlike previous debates, there was no discussion about privilege being a pejorative or the influence of outside groups. Instead, the candidates focused on communities likely to be pivotal in the election.

Neither candidate did especially well in communities of color during the preliminary election when there was a historic number of candidates running for office representing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity—there was one woman on the ballot. These six candidates—African-American, Cape Verdean-American, and Puerto Rican—received 35 percent of the vote.

And communities of color are expected to play a decisive role in determining who will be mayor Nov. 5. For example, about 17 percent of the 113,222 votes cast in the preliminary election came from precincts in which more half the people of voting age are African-American.

“This could be the pivotal debate because this community has power. This community is important. This community could make the difference in this race—and will,” the Rev. Liz Walker, who moderated the debate, told the crowd of more than 500 inside the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury.

A coalition of more than two dozen groups pushed for the debate, including the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, Boston Branch of the NAACP, Commonwealth Compact at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and MassVOTE.

Both candidates vowed to make City Hall reflect the city, with about 53 percent of residents identifying as a race or ethnicity other than white.

“We have 64 positions of leadership in the city and four people of color” in those positions, Walsh said. “That needs to change. My transition team is going to reflect my administration, which is going to reflect the city of Boston.”

Connolly said having an administrative cabinet that is at least half people of color is “the easiest promise I can make. And that’s not a quota; the talent is there. It’s just being put on the sideline.”

One of the areas in which the city needs a more diverse mix of businesses and employees is the development sector, they said.

Connolly said as mayor, he would commission a business disparity study, which would help highlight gaps in the system and ensure that businesses of color have the opportunity to participate on even footing. He wants to connect small businesses in the neighborhoods with large industries, having universities, for example, use companies in Roxbury to check their information technology systems.

But, Connolly said, it all starts with leadership at the BRA to make sure development deals are constructed inclusively. “We know the BRA needs to change in real ways. When we’re talking about increasing development by communities of color, we need to increase communities of color in the BRA,” he said. “Developers need to get direction from the leader of the city that we are serious.”

Getting businesses owned by women and people of color involved as development deals are being crafted is critical, said Walsh, who if elected promised to create a new agency, the Boston Economic Development Authority, which would be responsible for attracting new businesses to the city.

“Under those cranes we have a lot of residential units, but we’re not creating business opportunities,” he said. “We need to create business opportunities, not just on the waterfront, Downtown Crossing, and in Copley. But we need to bring those opportunities to our neighborhoods.”

Then alluding to his stumbling response to a question from the previous night’s debate about how he would use the bully pulpit of mayor, Walsh said he would challenge the business community to be more inclusive. “I didn’t have this last night, but I will use the bully pulpit to go to them and say, ‘We need to be more inclusive.’ ”

He also would seek to partner high schools with high-tech industrial trades, which would provide economic opportunities for young people who aren’t headed to college.

Education, specifically narrowing the achievement gap that persists between children of color and their white peers, was the other topic that much of Wednesday night’s questions centered around.

“I don’t think there’s any one thing that is going to lead to reducing the achievement gap. It’s about a holistic strategy,” Connolly said. “It’s got to start at the prenatal stage when a mom is going to a community health center. Once that baby is born, it’s got to focus on the early literacy piece. When you bridge to the school, make sure you’re fully staffed for social emotional supports in school.”

And, he said, there must be a strong cultural competency component built into the contract of Boston Public School teachers so cultural differences with students don’t hinder education, but enhance it. The time has come to confront the “institutional and systemic racism that drives the achievement gap,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to stand firm and say what’s happening to our children is not OK. It’s important for children of color to have a teacher of color, but it’s also important for my daughter to have a teacher of color.”

Long-term and short-term strategies are needed to ensure all of Boston’s children excel academically, Walsh said.

The gaps in poverty must be closed if the gaps in education are to be closed, he said. Teachers in a school must reflect the diversity of the students in their classrooms. Universal pre-kindergarten programs are needed for the city’s littlest learners, a time when achievement gaps emerge and the prime moment to intervene. And, he said, there needs to be real reform around high schools.

“A lot of people the last five years have been talking about, ‘We have to close the achievement gap.’ And we do have to close the achievement gap,” Walsh said. “We study everything in this city to death, but we need to stop studying and start implementing.”