Menino's camp says bar was set high for Wednesday night
Mayor Thomas Menino and challengers Michael Flaherty, Sam Yoon and Kevin McCrea prepared to set the tone of the 2009 mayoral race this week as they readied for the contest's first debate. The debate, planned to be moderated by political analyst Jon Keller on WBZ-TV on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., has been rescheduled to the same time next week due to the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy.
Menino's press secretary Nick Martin said on Tuesday that the mayor views the initial debate as "a chance to reach a very broad audience and show them his vision for the future," and that Menino can be expected to stick to the issues.
"He's prepared to defend his record, but as he's said in the past, this isn't about the past, it's about moving the city forward and showing residents that he's the one most qualified to do that," said Martin.
For Flaherty's campaign, the debate is not only a way for TV viewers to meet their candidate, but also to bring residents into a world they allege the incumbent has shut people out of.
"We're very much looking forward to it," said Flaherty spokesperson Natasha Perez. "We see it as another opportunity to reach out to people and talk to them in their home."
Perez said Flaherty plans to make connections between city government and the communities to reduce voter apathy and get people involved.
"How do we, as a city, weave together the successes we have so it truly benefits everyone? How are we weaving together the fabric of Boston?" she asked. "I think there are a lot of people who have done very, very well in Boston, and then those who haven't. And those people have turned their backs on it."
"Development is just one example of how people aren't participating," she continued. "It has to do with leadership and a type of leadership that doesn't ask people for their voice or ask people for their viewpoint. If you ask them to help in making this city better, they will."
Martin defended Menino's approach to development: "The mayor is very proud of his development track record ... He has invested not just in downtown commercial real estate but also in building up development in the neighborhoods."
Jim Spencer, Yoon's chief campaign strategist, is anticipating "the most interesting debate" of the mayoral race because of Keller's relatively open, question-driven format-there won't be any opening or closing statements, which usually allows for more interchange and ideas over rehearsed talking points, he said. But, Spencer added, "We have not been doing a lot of prep. time because Sam has been busy with his town meetings and he's good at thinking on his feet."
Spencer said Yoon has been focusing his resources on neighborhood forums and town meetings. The message, he explained, has been based on the idea of "transformational change" for the city.
"In Boston, after 16 years, we seem to be stuck ... We need a modern, 21st-century government," said Spencer.
As the candidate with the least name recognition, South End developer Kevin McCrea said the debate is a chance to introduce himself and open voters' eyes.
"I think it's, for a lot of people, their first chance to see me in a public forum," he said. "Just talking about who I am and what I do and my two biggest issues, education and ending the corruption and lack of transparency at City Hall."
McCrea said his overall strategy is the same as it was when he ran for city councilor at-large four years ago-to "educate people about what the real situation is at City Hall" and make them aware of the "scare tactics" he alleges Menino uses to "continuously raise taxes."
He also pointed out Menino's absence from neighborhood events like last Saturday's mayoral candidates' forum on the arts in the South End.
"I think the mayor wants to avoid taking questions for the same reason he has for years: He doesn't want to give answers," McCrea alleged. "The mayor doesn't have answers to questions like, 'Why has the budget gone up 50 percent when the cost of living has only gone up 15 percent?'"
Spencer likened Menino's absence from such events-and agreement to participate in three televised debates, rather than more-to "voter suppression."
"When fewer people participate in government, the incumbent benefits," he said. "We want to have a better democracy in Boston with more participation and a real discussion of the issues."
Martin fired back that Menino has been out in the neighborhoods every day listening to residents, while also running city business. And, he added, "He's agreed to do more debates and forums than ever before." Menino will be at Rosie's Place in the South End with at-large city council candidate Doug Bennett on Monday from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m.; Martin was unsure whether Menino would be present at MassVOTE's Sept. 3 mayoral forum in Roxbury.
"I know that the mayor has prepared very thoroughly for this debate. He takes his competitors very seriously," said Martin. "We hope that this is an opportunity to talk about the real issues of the city and not make personal attacks."
He added that although Menino is the most seasoned politician in the race, all four candidates would be subject to the high standards during the debate.
"I think the bar is set pretty high for everyone," said Martin.
But Spencer said Menino's experience staying on message on television would be an advantage.
"I think that what people are forgetting to recognize is that there's only one man up there with debate experience, and that's Mayor Menino," he said. "He's the one that the expectations should be high for."
Perez agreed: "Think about it, 16 years of being on TV, being in front of a large audience. He's used to it, he's used to making his point and getting his message through."
The big question going into Wednesday is not so much about the mayor's performance, Perez said, but "whether Menino will be held accountable for his answers."
"We all need to be spoken to-not spoken at-but spoken to and spoken with about our hope and our vision," said Perez. "And I think that is the most important thing that will come out of the debate."