Politics as Unusual: Walsh was the clear debate winner

I’m having flashbacks of the media coverage on the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Biden, it was assumed beforehand, would eviscerate the rube, and further expose her as a demagogic ignoramus. In practice, those predictions were spot-on, though not everyone interpreted it that way. Presumably impressed that Palin abstained from urinating on the stage, even some respectable moderate pundits sung praise of her performance. They were grading on a curve, it seemed, and she was the dumb kid who exceeded expectations.

We all expect partisans and close supporters of particular candidates to ignore debate reality. But when everyone from media types to average voters start conflating what really happened with preferential pandering, there’s something troubling afoot. On that note, and as one of the few people who watched last night’s Boston mayoral debate during the competing Red Sox game, I thought it would be fitting to explain what actually unfolded. You sure as heck won’t find out by reading Twitter feeds or either of our daily newspapers.

It was a mauling. Not in the sense that one candidate totally humiliated the other, or because the debate revealed much insight into who our next mayor will be, but rather because state Rep. Marty Walsh coolly punked City Councilor John Connolly at every turn. From the opening statements, in which Walsh convincingly segued from his personal history to city planning, to compelling riffs on everything from housing to policing, the representative won almost every round. I didn’t personally expect this, as Connolly is by many measures more intellectually inclined. Somehow, though, Walsh smoothed just enough edges to outclass the councilor without sacrificing his regular-guy laurels.

I’m confident that any debate coach or unbiased political vet would concur. Walsh led Connolly repeatedly, not just setting the tone throughout, but in some instances making it look like his opponent had nothing to add. On police misconduct, for one, the representative called dibs on the idea to boost community involvement. Walsh even initiated dialogues on Connolly’s branded pedagogical turf, most notably regarding early childhood programs, and at one point pushed the councilor to “take issue” with the co-optation of his ed candidate credentials. It was embarrassing.

As some outlets recounted things, this made for an overly civilized showdown. The Herald called the melee “punchless.” But considering that Walsh fights a daily battle against tired clichés of Neanderthal Teamsters shredding yard signs and beating Connolly supporters senseless, he deserves credit for his gentlemanly edge. He also drilled down key specifics, and honorably called out Wells Fargo for its unsavory foreclosure practices. Connolly didn’t pee himself, but he did appear frustrated at some points and uncharacteristically inarticulate at others. Strangely, the councilor offered a vignette about (and went so far as to name) a former student of his for whom he helped secure a private school education, but who wound up impregnating his girlfriend.

Though I’m happy to defend my analysis of last night’s show in any debate forum myself, I’m aware that it hardly reflects an overwhelming consensus. Rather than call the win for Walsh, the hot-air balloons producing our mayoral news, opinions and social media coverage have focused on his brushing off a question about outside money; confronted by Connolly about his union ties, the longtime labor leader shot back a terse “no comment.” It didn’t bother me the least, but then again, maybe I’m no better than the other talking heads—I did, after all, watch the debate in a room full of Walsh supporters in Brighton. I guess it’s probably best to check the replay, read the transcript, and decide for yourself.

A former Boston Phoenix staff writer, Chris Faraone is now contributing editor at DigBoston.

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