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Boston Mayoral Candidates Debate For First Time Before Preliminary Election

BOSTON (CBS) - There were no major blunders. All the candidates were able to promote at least some of their campaign themes. And everyone kept their cool.

But Wednesday night's first televised Boston mayoral debate did illustrate the ups and downs of being acting mayor for Kim Janey -- it gives you visibility, but also makes you a very visible target.

"It is not enough to have empty rhetoric, we have to reimagine how we do this work," said Janey when the topic turned to police reform. But she was quickly put on the defensive on the topic, a theme repeated throughout the hour.

For the acting mayor, it was a night of defending her work on issues like police reform, and making the case for a full term to continue it.

"I'm not sure what Mayor Janey's plan is," said John Barros. "I'd love for her to point to a plan. She doesn't have a plan."

And Annissa Essaibi George went for the jugular by invoking a controversial political phrase: "We can talk about reallocation, we can talk about reinvestment - that's just another word for defunding public safety in this city."

Even a generally above-the-fray Michelle Wu swiped at Janey's leadership. "I would give our City of Boston a C-plus for how we've handled the pandemic," she said. "We have gotten to the point where we are now seeing businesses beginning to wonder what the next steps are as the Delta variant ramps up. We're sitting on the verge of school reopening and a lot of uncertainty as well."

Speaking of uncertainty, the night's biggest pile-on came on the seemingly chaotic state of the public school busing plan.

"I am really encouraged that our bus drivers and Transdev [the city's busing sub-contractor] and the school department have reached an agreement, we are expecting and welcoming all of our bus drivers back," said Janey.

But Barros wasn't buying it. "I just remember talking to two bus drivers before getting here and they're not confident, they're calling this the worst of any school year that they've been a part of," he countered.

Andrea Campbell laid the confusion over routes and staffing at Janey's feet. "We did know there's been a bus shortage, there's a national bus shortage right now. We should have been proactive in planning for this," Campbell said.

And when the topic turned to one of the campaign's biggest issues - education - former teacher Essaibi George offered a solution. "You want to fix the schools, you want to improve education in this city, I suggest the people of Boston consider hiring a teacher for that job," she said.

The takeaways: Janey was calm and poised under fire, but didn't rebut her critics with the kind of intensity that might excite undecided voters. And the candidates mostly passed up opportunities to press issues that might have illuminated differences between them, such as charter schools and rent control. So while it's hard to see this debate as shaking up the logjam for the second ticket to the final, the voters may have a different verdict come next Tuesday.

For more information about the major candidates, check out our interviews in which we ask them all the same issue-related questions so voters can compare their answers. And if you're a Boston voter, don't forget to cast your ballot, then watch it count with our extensive preliminary election coverage on CBSN Boston starting at 8pm on September 14th.

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