Mayoral debate more talking points than testy 

Candidates mainly stick to the story they’ve told on the trail

SOME WERE EXPECTING fireworks, but what we saw was more often a display of sparklers. 

The five major candidates for mayor of Boston squared off Wednesday night in a televised debate less than a week before voters will narrow the field to two finalists. The hour-long session on NBC10 Boston gave voters a chance to see and hear the candidates in action. But there were no break-out moments or sustained attacks or exchanges that seem destined to reshape the race in a big way. 

Instead, the candidates seemed to reinforce their main arguments, while looking for opportunities to send signals to voters who may still be wavering on who to support. 

City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has been riding high atop every poll and looking like a good bet for a slot in the November final election, stayed on message with her talk of bringing a broad, long-term vision for a more equitable – and environmentally sustainable – future for the city. Wu was less pointed than others in critiquing Acting Mayor Kim Janey. As she has throughout the race, she looked to lock up some lefty support by reminding viewers she is the only candidate willing to look to every “tool” to deal with housing costs — including rent stabilization.

A lot of the pre-debate interest focused on the three other women candidates — Janey, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, and City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George — who, according to polls, are locked in a tight race for second place and the other slot in the final. 

Janey, who has held the mayoral reins since Marty Walsh’s departure in March, was the obvious target for any attacks, and she was hit by both rivals. 

Campbell decried the ongoing problems in the Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard area, and said the city should not have gone into today’s opening of schools with fears of a chaotic start due to a bus driver shortage. “We should have been proactive in planning for this,” said Campbell, who repeatedly claimed to have the most detailed plans for addressing a range of issues facing the city. 

Essaibi George zinged Janey for having scuttled a committee focused on homelessness, mental health, and recovery when she reworked things as City Council president. She also continued her strategy of broadly embracing progressive reforms, while still making clear that she’s the candidate for more moderate or conservative voters. Essaibi George said all the candidates support greater transparency and accountability in the police department, but she slammed any talk of reallocating or reinvesting police spending as “just another word for defunding public safety in this city.” 

Janey sought to project an air of mayoral leadership and capitalize on the biggest asset she has going into next week’s election — her standing and visibility as acting mayor. She ticked off city initiatives on vaccines, affordable housing, and public safety. She made clear how personally she is affected by gun violence. “I’ve lost count how many times someone has been shot in front of my house,” Janey said of her Roxbury residence. “This issue is real. I live with the trauma as do many residents across our city.” 

But when John Barros, who served as economic development chief under Walsh, was asked by moderator Shannon Mulaire if he thought Janey’s public safety plan was working, he came back with perhaps the sharpest retort of the night. 

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“I’m not sure what Mayor Janey’s plan is,” he said. He went to say she was claiming credit for positive crime statistics that are a result of “work that the Walsh administration did.” It was a moment that underscored Janey’s position as the quasi-incumbent, but one that has been criticized for lacking comprehensive plans on many issues. She clearly benefits from the role, but has a hard time claiming credit for things that were in motion before she took over six months ago. At the same time, she is vulnerable to problems now occurring on her watch, with all eyes on Thursday’s school reopening and potential problems with school bus staffing. 

Barros, who has lagged far behind in polls, more than held his own — and probably wishes the preliminary election was a few weeks off with several more televised debates in between. 

But it’s not, and the focus still seems to be on the three-way scramble for second place. On that score, WBZ analyst Jon Keller said, it is “hard to see this debate as shaking up the logjam for the second ticket to the final.”