Mayor Martin Walsh defended his record against persistent criticisms by his challenger in next month’s election, City Councillor Tito Jackson, as the two men clashed over competing visions for Boston at a debate Tuesday evening.
With two weeks to go until the vote, the mayoral race rests on whether Jackson’s broad promise of comprehensive reform in city governance is compelling enough for voters to unseat a popular mayor touting strong, if uneven, growth and strategic long-term planning.
Hosted by WGBH News and moderated by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan of Boston Public Radio at the station’s Allston headquarters, the debate was the second and final of two planned events. The earlier encounter, hosted by RoxVote in Roxbury last week, laid out many of the same considerations. The campaigns have sparred over Jackson’s desire for more debates and Walsh’s insistence that two would do.
After the debate on Tuesday, Jackson, having spent the hour beforehand needling the mayor on affordable housing, educational funding, and ambitious misfires like the 2024 Olympics proposal, said he considers himself the “David” facing off against Walsh’s Goliath of institutional advantage.
In his turn, Walsh kept a largely even keel and leaned on statistics showing concrete drops in crime, educational investments, and potential windfalls from successfully courting companies like General Electric to put down roots in Boston.
The move to the city by GE is a major point of disagreement between the candidates. Jackson said the tens of millions in tax incentives allocated to bring in the tech giant “was a bet the city of Boston lost.” Walsh answered that the company’s agreement to rehabilitate parts of the Fort Point Channel neighborhood and, by its presence, bring in revenue the city can leverage toward education, housing, and other needs far outweighs the tax incentives. “Turning a company like General Electric away… would be completely the wrong thing to do,” he said.
The mayor tossed Boston’s hat in the ring last week in making a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters last week, without offering similar incentives to the agreement with GE . Jackson contrasted the speed at which the Walsh administration pursues bold developments to the state of the Boston Public schools, which he has pledged to “fully fund.”
“The issue is this,” the councillor said: “We have a mayor who fast-tracks bids for Amazon, Olympics, Grand Prix, but he slow-tracks changes to education and fully funding the Boston public schools.” Noting cuts to underperforming schools, Jackson promised to include funds for art and music education, computer science, and resources like nurses and librarians. He also said he would open up more seats for pre-K students, for which there is a waiting list.
“The money follows the child,” Walsh said in response. School-weighting formulas shift funds based on where students enroll, but the administration is dedicating additional funds to struggling schools where possible. BPS gained $50 million in last year’s budget, along with 758 new pre-K seats, the mayor said.
Jackson has made ambitious financial assurances throughout the campaign, including the additional schools funding and an increase in the size of the police force. The moderators asked him about the release of his draft budget, which he promised to do earlier this year. Presumably, it would identify areas of the city’s finances to be re-allocated toward those new services. Jackson said he would release the numbers later this week, adding that $30 million in additional Boston Public Schools funding is included in the drafty.
Over the course of the debate, Jackson said the mayor’s office, and City Hall in general, lack transparency. He critiqued Walsh’s decision not to say whether he appeared before a grand jury looking into corruption charges for two city officials. Walsh said he is “waiting for this case to be done.”
The challenger pointed to his subpoena for Olympics documents, calling the initial bidding opaque, and repeating his pledge to dismantle the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which, Jackson said, “is not a transparent organization.”
As the conversation turned to race relations and public safety, Jackson and the moderators pushed Walsh on a slow turnaround on implementing police body cameras after a one-year pilot elapsed. “The feedback I’ve received so far has been a good response on the body cameras, a great reaction in the community,” said Walsh, adding that the city is waiting for Northeastern University to finish an analysis of the pilot before deciding whether or not to fully outfit the police force.
“We want to be able to see to make sure, if you make that investment, you want to make sure that’ll work,” he said. “And on top of that, it’s not about a body camera, it’s about building trust in a community. You can have all the cameras you want, but if a person of color, if a young black kid still doesn’t feel safe waking down the street because a police officer approaches him, that’s where the problems are.”
Jackson said the body camera process speaks to a lack of leadership. “This also is about paralysis by analysis. He needs to step forward and actually take a leadership role on this, and that’s what we’ve seen out of this mayor timid, tepid leadership, and that’s why we don’t have body cams in Boston.”
Walsh replied that violent crime is down 6 percent, property crime down 14 percent. Making a point of pride, Walsh said that arrests over the last three years have dropped nearly 30 percent.
The candidates are also split on the best way to handle homelessness in the city. By closing the Long Island Bridge, Jackson said, local homelessness “is a burning issue that Mayor Walsh has made worse.”
But the Long Island Bridge is not a panacea for homelessness, Walsh said; support structures are. The city has eliminated chronic veteran homelessness and housed 1,200 chronically homeless people in the last three years, the mayor said.
“When the bridge was open, what we used to do in the city of Boston, before I was the mayor, is we used to take homeless people off the streets and ship them out to Long Island and not deal with the issue,” Walsh said. “We’re actually dealing with the issue.”
Walsh and Jackson beat out two relatively unknown challengers in the Sept. 26 primary, which was a strong showing with low turnout for Walsh, who walked away with 62 percent to Jackson’s 29 percent, even carrying Jackson’s District 7, which the councillor has represented for the past six years. The mayor’s win in September was consistent with polling throughout the race that shows him with a commanding lead, consistently an edge over his challenger of at least 30 points.
On Tuesday night, Jackson said that he hoped his debate performance and subsequent work on the street to get out the vote will be enough to close the gap the polling shows.