Improving public education? They are both in favor. Effecting a less racist, more diverse police force? Yup, both support that, too. Making the buses run on time? Sure, why not?
Connolly and Walsh engaged in their first televised debate this past Tuesday, and the forum only served to reinforce this “not a dime’s worth of difference” narrative propelling the campaign. Asked right at the start to differentiate themselves from each other, neither candidate made even the most meager attempt to do so, and the ensuing back-and-forth followed suit.
To a degree, this substantive interchangeability might have been inevitable. After all, Connolly and Walsh seek the highest office of a city that, apart from being hideously one-partied—less than 7 percent of Bostonians are registered Republicans—has enjoyed the remarkable continuity of being ruled by just three mayors in the past 46 years.
(Both candidates are Democrats, as were nine of their 10 rivals in the preliminary round of voting.)
What this means is that the winner of the race will be determined by something other than the so-called “issues.” The only mystery is what this yet-unknown X factor will be.
On this, I could simply spend the rest of this column speculating. Instead, allow me to zero in on the most striking characteristic of Tuesday’s debate: What Connolly and Walsh did with their faces.
Of these two men, Connolly, a city councilman, has plainly spent more time honing the fine art of public speaking. Delivering his talking points, he makes certain always to keep in motion. If his default facial expression is a serious one, he makes a conscious effort not to go more than a few sentences without turning his frown upside down.
Walsh, by contrast, barely moves a muscle when he speaks. The words stream from his mouth at sometimes dizzying speeds, but the rest of his face remains frozen in position, as if any movement would render him too distractingly animated for the public to handle.
Walsh, a state representative, does not smile very much, but nor can he be said to frown. Rather, he always keeps his face on an even keel. Not too high, not too low.
I linger on this seemingly trifling observation because, in Walsh’s case, I suspect the character of his face portrays an uncommon, and therefore noteworthy, facet of his character: Real integrity.
Walsh, you see, has centered his mayoral campaign on his compelling past, which included a bout with childhood cancer and then a prolonged and serious drinking problem—both of which he has since snuffed.
The implication is that Walsh is lucky to be alive, and that no one is more aware of this than he. More than most people his age (he is 46), he understands the preciousness of life and the good health that enables one to run for office in the first place. In the process, he has learned to be humble—or as humble as the political arena allows—and to not speak with any more authority than he can rightly claim to possess.
That, in my estimation, is what can be read in his ostensibly expressionless face: A man who has been to the dark side and back, and is sincere in his desire to live the rest of his days honorably, including by serving the people of Boston as best he knows how.
This is not to suggest anything to the contrary about Walsh’s opponent, John Connolly, who has portrayed not a hint of shady motives or questionable character, and whose rhetorical savvy should not be mistaken for a lack of real empathy for real people. (He is, among other things, a former public school teacher.)
Nor, conversely, should we assume that a good man always makes for a good mayor. It would be nice to think so, but we know better. Whether you are the president or a member of the school board, it takes more than good intentions to get great things done.
But character does count, and one should always be on the lookout for a public official with even a flicker of genuine integrity, and be very grateful when one pops up.
Here in Boston, where our mayoral hopefuls all but cancel each other out on matters of substance, either would do well to play the integrity card and milk it for all it’s worth.
And if it has the added virtue of being true? Well, then you’ve really got something.