Boston voters finally notice that there's a mayor's race

Boston, New England's largest city, the economic hub of a bustling region, at the center of one of the nation's vital high-tech areas, will be electing a new mayor for the first time in 16 years. But from the look of things, it's hard to believe that very many people are interested.

Since last spring, when it seemed that candidates were lining up weekly to announce their intentions to run, the campaign has been marred by distractions. Beyond that, there is little to distinguish one candidate from another. (Most candidates are Democrats; none is Republican.) Only now, five weeks from the primary, is there an indication the campaign might turn into a race.

For months, the city's political spotlight seemed focused on anything or anyone but the announced candidates. First, the news media and the public wondered whether four-term Mayor Kevin H. White would seek reelection. The answer was no.

Then, legal problems arising from the redrawing of city council and school committee districts put the elections on hold. Weeks of meetings followed. New district lines were drawn, and the elections were rescheduled.

Finally, there was controversy over two ''fringe'' candidates being excluded from a televised debate.

After all these distractions the cry went forth: Let the campaigning begin in earnest! The candidates, who thought they had been campaigning in earnest, now had the city's attention. But they failed to capitalize on it.

For the most part, most of them agree on most issues. In mayoral forums across the city, candidates offer their views on Boston's principal problems: crime, public housing, education, and fiscal management. But because solutions to these issues are complex, voters have heard little more than pat remarks and simplistic proposals.

Recently, however, some differences among the leading candidates have emerged. Front-runner David I. Finnegan paints a rosier financial picture for Boston than others. He doubts Boston will face a deficit next year, and says promoting a good economic climate downtown will help restore the city's neglected neighborhoods.

Raymond L. Flynn and Melvin H. King, running neck and neck for second place, disagree with Mr. Finnegan. They predict the city will face a deficit of up to $ 40 million next year. And they say developers doing a booming business downtown should be required to help revitalize city neighborhoods.

Both have served terms in the state Legislature. Mr. Flynn's critics claim his record in the Legislature was marred by racism and sexism. Flynn, now serving on the City Council, says he's changed, and asks to be judged on his more liberal council record.

Mr. King, who is black, receives support from a broad range of voters. His campaign is based on eliminating ''the politics of exclusion,'' which he says rules Boston. But some critics doubt a black can win here.

Three candidates, Dennis J. Kearney, Lawrence S. DiCara, and Robert R. Kiley, are struggling to catch the front-runners. The two remaining candidates are Eloise Linger, representing the Socialist Workers Party, and radical conservative Michael Gelber.

A bipartisan primary election on Oct. 11 will narrow the field to two candidates.

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