Mudslinging Gives Way to Basketball in Boston Mayor Race

In Boston, known for politics and sports that draw blood, the 12 candidates for mayor are doing the unthinkable: They’re being chummy.

The group ribs one another about stump speeches and weight lost or gained on the trail. Five shed suit jackets for a spontaneous game of pickup basketball last month while a sixth provided color commentary. At least some of the time, they’ll come to one another’s defense when attacked.

“I’ve talked to some of them about how we should have a reunion after this is over,” said candidate Bill Walczak, 59. “I’m going to miss these guys.”

An open mayoral seat down I-95 in New York City produced the mudslinging that voters have come to expect in big-city elections. There, a fight almost broke out after Democratic candidate Anthony Weiner, 49, referred to Republican candidate George McDonald, 69, as “grandpa” during a forum sponsored by AARP.

In Los Angeles, eight candidates ran in the March primary, which included sniping about the oil holdings of one candidate and accusations that the elected officials in the race were untrustworthy insiders.

Not so in Boston, at least this far.

Same Tune

Thomas Menino, who is retiring after serving longer than any mayor in the city’s history, described the contest as subdued in an interview. He predicted the camaraderie would dissipate after Sept. 24, when voters winnow the field to two finalists. The general election is Nov. 5.

“It is very difficult to get into a discussion of real issues with 12 individuals saying the same basic things,” said Menino, who announced in March that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. “It is now more of a popularity show than who is going to do what for the city in the future.”

The Democratic mayor, who had a 74 percent approval rating in a March Boston Globe poll, repeated his pledge not to make an endorsement -- unless a candidate “trashes the city” and forces him to enter the fray and defend his record.

The race is nonpartisan, though all except one are Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in Boston by 8 to 1. Five are sitting members of the city council. Six live in the same Dorchester neighborhood, and most have worked together in some capacity over the years.

Rockier Past

“Mayoral elections were much more hard-fought in years past,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. “This is an important testament to how the city has changed.”

Boston’s bare-knuckles political reputation dates from the early 20th century, when James Michael Curley was elected mayor four times and went to jail twice. It was enhanced in the 1980s and early 1990s when the president of the state senate, William Bulger, ruled local politics while his older brother, Whitey, ran Boston’s organized crime.

Bostonians are more educated, wealthier and safer than when Menino came to office 20 years ago. Those with a bachelor’s degree jumped to 43 percent in 2010 from 30 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census data. Per-capita income rose to $33,158 in 2010 from $27,399 in 1989, adjusted for inflation. The homicide rate dropped to 10 per 100,000 residents in 2011 from 25 per 100,000 in 1990, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

On the campaign trail, most candidates have similar backgrounds and views on issues, Ubertaccio said, which further reduces the opportunities for acrimony. They range in age from 34 to 64. Five are black, one is Hispanic and six are white.

Shooting Hoops

There’s some reason for candidates to forge alliances. Only two will advance to the general election, and the finalists will seek endorsements and support from their erstwhile rivals.

Exhibit A of the collegiality craze was the pickup basketball game. The idea started percolating after Rob Consalvo -- a 44-year-old contender with a portly figure -- cut a commercial showing him landing a series of three-point baskets while outlining his plan for the city, he said in an interview.

Then six candidates found themselves near a basketball court in the city’s Mattapan neighborhood after a candidate forum in Almont Park on Aug. 30.

“That was not planned,” said candidate Felix Arroyo, 34, who played. “We were all at the same event. Somehow we all ended up on the court.”

Teamwork Exhibited

Staff members recorded the game with their smartphones. Arroyo posted a clip on his campaign YouTube channel that shows him dribbling the ball, passing to candidate John Barros, 40, getting it back and then hitting a three-pointer.

All the while, candidate Charles Clemons, 52, a radio station owner, yells from the sideline in an announcer’s voice. “Look at that pass!” he says. “Look at that pass! Man, that was the game!”

Candidates also can work as a team onstage. On Sept. 9, the dozen hopefuls appeared for the only televised debate and found themselves pressed to attack one another by moderator Joe Battenfeld, a Boston Herald columnist.

He singled out candidate Dan Conley, 55, as the only one in the field who sends his children to private schools.

“What is wrong with the schools that they aren’t good enough for your kids?” he asked.

Conley demurred. Battenfeld pressed.

Candidate John Connolly, 40, leaped to the defense of his competitor.

“I don’t think it is a legitimate question,” Connolly said, unprompted. “I know if Dan Conley is mayor, he’s going to do everything he can to make the schools work.”

Candidate Charles Yancey, 64, also chimed in with some advice for the moderator.

“I think the question needs to be rephrased,” he said.

Some Discord

Some whiffs of discord float in the autumn air. On Sept. 4, black leaders met to discuss asking some of the six minority candidates to bow out to prevent black and Hispanic voters from splitting their support.

“For the first time ever, a black person might become mayor of Boston, if there is some solidarity,” said William Murrell, who publishes the website “Of course, black voters don’t like being told what to do. Who does? But this is politics.”

The meeting included a top adviser to Charlotte Golar Richie, 54, who is black and the only woman in the race. Asked about it during the forum, she said she doesn’t want anyone to feel forced to leave the race and distanced herself from the supporter who pushed the idea.

“I can win this one on my own,” she said.

In keeping with the theme of the race, none of the other five minority candidates attacked her directly when asked whether they were offended.

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