John R. Connolly and Martin J. Walsh, the two finalists in Boston’s mayoral race, took turns Wednesday evening being grilled by members of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, an outspoken group that has made no qualms about its desire to influence the first open race for the City Hall office in 20 years.
More than 100 association and community members packed the group’s headquarters in Dorchester as the candidates took the podium separately for 30 minutes to address issues of public safety, police diversity, and inequity of city services in minority neighborhoods.
The standing-room-only event was, in some ways, symbolic of the competitive fight between the candidates for voters in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and other minority neighborhoods seen as being up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election.
Walsh emphasized that his district includes much of Dorchester, and he spoke about the need for more African-American history courses in city schools. Connolly talked about dropping his daughter off each day at the Trotter School, a once-underachieving public school in a largely minority area of the neighborhood.
The association has long focused on ousting Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, whom they accuse of disproportionately handing out harsh discipline to minority officers and ignoring calls for more diversity in the upper ranks.
During the 12-candidate preliminary, the association had vowed to oppose any candidate who would keep Davis, but his announcement Sept. 23 that he will be stepping down has caused a shift in the conversation.
Instead of being asked if they would show Davis the door, Connolly and Walsh were questioned instead on how they would increase diversity across the department’s ranks, as well as a host of other issues.
Asked if he would keep the current leadership at the top of the police and fire departments, Walsh said he could not commit to keeping or replacing any of those who currently hold Cabinet-level positions.
“Every position is going to be open for discussion; everybody is going to be reapplying for their job,’’ he said.
“So you’re not keeping Ed Davis?’’ the moderator posed jokingly to Walsh.
“Gone!’’ Walsh said, swiping through the air with his hand, with a laugh.
Connolly, meanwhile, was never directly asked about Davis. Instead, the audience responded with applause as he stressed the importance of having people of color in leadership positions in city government, the Police Department, and in the Boston public schools.
“That’s about prioritizing the search for the superintendent for schools,’’ Connolly said. “. . . It’s the search for a police commissioner, and I can guarantee you I’m going to be coming here to listen.’’
Walsh and Connolly never actually were in the same room during the forum. Connolly waited outside of the building as Walsh spoke for his 30 minutes, and Walsh left immediately following his session.
There was little love lost as the two crossed paths in the doorway, with Walsh leaving as Connolly entered.
The two mayoral rivals, locked in a campaign that turned from tepid to tense just days into the general election contest, paused, shook hands, and moved on with few words.
The half-hour segments with each candidate held very different tones.
Walsh began with a very brief opening statement and then took a long series of questions, at times shooting back at questions that he thought were unfairly premised, such as one about racism in a union that he once led.
Would he bring back an elected school committee? No. Would he commit to involving people of color in his transition team? Yes. Would he commit to hiring a black police commissioner? No, but the top of the department will reflect the city of Boston under his tenure, he said.
Connolly spent much of his time delivering a well-worn campaign address in which he talks about the “two Bostons’’ that children are living in, created by inequality in education, public services, and resources.
He then switched to his proposal for a citywide summit in his first month in office, during which he would focus on bringing survivors of violence to the table to figure out how to better serve them.
“All ideas will be on the table,’’ Connolly said. “I’ve got this sneaking suspicion that if we listen more to the people for whom Boston hasn’t worked, we can find our way to a comprehensive plan that will work.’’