FOLLOWING a fleeting 4-1/2 month campaign, Boston's mayoral candidates will be put to their first major political test in tomorrow's preliminary election.
In the wake of a dizzying summer of debates, rallies, neighborhood visits, and house parties, the candidates are making their final sales pitches to win one of two spots on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Candidate Robert Rufo, who logged 11,000 miles in his car this summer campaigning in the city, is upbeat but guarded about his prospects. ``I feel very energized and enthusiastic about my chances on Tuesday. But I'm cautiously optimistic,'' he says. ``We still have a lot of work to do.''
A field of eight contenders are running in this special city election, to be held this year after former Mayor Raymond Flynn took on the United States ambassadorship to the Vatican. Of those eight, polls show four Democratic candidates attracting the most supporters: Acting Mayor Thomas Menino; City Councilor Rosaria Salerno, the only top female contender; state Rep. James Brett; and Mr. Rufo, the Suffolk County sheriff. All candidates in the race are Democrats except one, Republican Diane Moriarty.
Here in the nation's 20th largest city, some observers suggest that this election could usher in a new political era after Mr. Flynn's 9-1/2 year reign. (Boston has had only three mayors in 33 years.) Yet others disagree about the emergence of a new era, since no charismatic front-runner has come forth, even this late in the game. Nor has any major theme, for that matter, though contenders talk about improving public safety, reforming the troubled school system, and revitalizing the downtown economy.
``It's pretty much a faceless group that is kind of struggling to get some heads above water,'' says Jerry Berger, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
Yet, it is clear that the next mayor will not be a Flynn clone, notes Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston city councilor. The populist Flynn, known as ``mayor of the neighborhoods,'' championed concerns of city residents and helped maintain racial harmony.
``He had his chance, he did his thing, he set the city in that direction, and now we have to move on,'' Mr. DiCara says.
Of the four major candidates, Mr. Menino is well-positioned to end up as one of two finalists for November, observers predict.
As City Council president, Menino took on the post of acting mayor after Flynn's July departure. And for the most part, his candidacy hasn't been hurt by the high-profile job. Although he's been blamed for mishandling a teachers' union contract that backfired earlier this month, Menino has managed to bounce back. As the former chairman of the city's Ways and Means Committee, he says the election will mark a shift in the way in which the city spends and manages money because Boston is likely to face tight financial times ahead.
``I think it's a new direction for the city. I think the person who gets elected has to be familiar with how the city finances are run and how to get more from less,'' he said in a telephone interview.
The other three top candidates have performed well in polls, although the numbers are shifting daily. From early in the race, Rufo assembled the most-organized and well-funded campaign. He has identified public safety as a key issue and draws on his managerial experience as county sheriff.
Ms. Salerno, a liberal and former nun, portrays herself as the outsider who is above ``the old boys network.'' Her candidacy brings a fresh perspective to city politics, she says, as it does not pay homage to the patronage system and political machines of her three strongest competitors.
``We can either do things ... the right way or we can do them the political way,'' she says.
Mr. Brett, on the other hand, is the only Irish-American of the top four contenders. He draws on his experience in the Bay State House of Representatives. He has emphasized beefing up the downtown economy but, of late, his position has slipped in polls.
The remaining four candidates make up an interesting lot, though they remain at the bottom tier. Local TV journalist Christopher Lydon, whose ``outsider'' campaign likens him a bit to Ross Perot, is making his political debut. Though he performs well in debates and interviews, he is considered a long shot.
City Councilor Bruce Bolling, an African-American and the only minority candidate of the race, has not drawn enough support citywide. Former Boston Police Commissioner Francis (Mickey) Roache, the race's most socially conservative candidate, has also trailed behind. Ms. Moriarty, a lawyer, is also a long shot making her political debut.