Boston At-Large Council Forum

Last night I was honored to moderate a Ward 5 Democrats forum for the candidates for the four at-large city council seats -- the first such forum of the year. Incumbents Felix Arroyo, John Connolly, and Stephen Murphy were there, joined by challengers William Dorcena, Michael Flaherty, and Sean Ryan. The only candidate not in attendance was incumbent Ayanna Pressley, who had to cancel to tend to her ill mother.

Universal Hub and the Dorchester Reporter have some write-ups, and Boston Neighborhood Network (BNN) taped it to show at a later date.

The format used by Ward 5 is a good one, particularly for early in the process. Committee members come up with questions -- to be answered by all of the participants -- ensuring that the candidates will address issues of particular interest to the group. Those questions are shared with the candidates earlier in the day. I, as moderator, am then given pretty wide latitude to pick and choose which questions to use, and to rephrase or embellish them as I want. The result won't satisfy those who (like me) want to see sparks fly and candidates pinned down on tough issues. But it does allow the audience to hear each candidate express themselves on key issues, and that's really quite valuable.

Of course, being the rat-fink that I am, I added two quick raise-hands questions for all of the candidates. The first: Do you support and join in Mayor Menino's call for the Niketown store (on Newbury Street, in Ward 5) to stop selling T-shirts with (arguably) pro-drug messages? Connolly, Flaherty, and Murphy raised their hands; but I won't draw any conclusions about white Irish guys from that.

My second yes/no question was: Do you support reprecincting, to address the current population imbalance, even if it means breaking up Ward 5? All the candidates except Ryan raised hands for that one.

I'll just make a few general observations on the candidates. I thought both of the "also-running" candidates were impressive, and came across like they belong on the same stage with the current (and former) councilors. Ryan in particular has greatly improved as a campaigner since I first saw him at a similar forum two years ago; he focuses on his central city issues, with less emphasis on his conservative-libertarian ideology, and does a really good job of weaving together his own personal history and activities in Boston with his prescriptions for the future. Dorcena, who I have only previously spoken to by phone, was quite impressive, although I'm not sure he has honed a take-away message for why the city needs him in place of one of the current councilors.

The love-fest among the incumbents is a little off-putting to me; both Connolly and Murphy quite explicitly spoke of the incumbents as a foursome who should be retained as a package. (Connolly also referred to Arroyo as his "good friend," which strikes me as a bit of a stretch.) None of the three incumbents in attendance seemed eager to bad-mouth Menino, by name or implication, although there were some examples given of how the council has stood up to the big man. Overall, I thought Arroyo, Connolly, and Murphy were solid, if uninspiring. Arroyo is periodically the best by far, and seems a lot looser and humorous than he often seemed to me in his first campaign. But he has a tendency to start talking too fast when he gets into policy, rushing through and losing the audience.

Flaherty seemed flat to me, especially in the early going. He got sharper toward the end, but he certainly didn't come across as a guy at a different (ie mayoral) level from the councilors. On the plus side, his mayoral campaign has left him with a really solid grasp on a lot of policy areas, that he can speak on with considerable self-confidence. Where I think he's missing the mark so far is in separating the policy discussions from his argument that he's needed as a counter to Menino. I'd like to see him weave them together, eg: "I'm not hearing the current councilors tell you what needs to be said about [issue X] -- that we're 10 years behind where we should be, because the mayor hasn't gotten it done. They're either not able to see it, or not willing to say it. I am."

Of course, there's plenty of time for that later. Plenty more forums to come with these candidates -- with or without me.

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