By BOB SALSBERG
---- — BOSTON — State Rep. Martin Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly emerged as the top vote getters in yesterday’s mayoral election, earning them spots in the November final that will determine a successor to Thomas Menino, the city’s longest-serving mayor.
Unofficial returns showed Walsh and Connolly leading a crowded field that included ten other candidates. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Walsh had 19,808 votes, or 18 percent of the vote, while Connolly had 18,809, or 17 percent.
Menino, who first took office in 1993, announced earlier this year that he would not seek a sixth four-year term following a series of health problems and hospitalizations.
The winner of the November election will become only the city’s fourth mayor since 1968.
A Dorchester resident and son of Irish immigrants, Walsh, 46, has attracted strong labor backing for his campaign. He worked as a union laborer before being elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1997. He currently chairs the House Ethics Committee.
As a lawmaker, Walsh has remained active in union affairs and served as head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District, resigning the post before launching his mayoral bid.
Walsh survived cancer as a young child and overcame a bout with alcoholism as a young adult, mentioning both struggles in his signature TV ad during the preliminary election campaign.
Connolly, a 40-year-old father of three, has made education the central focus of his campaign. Among other things, he advocates extended learning time at every Boston public school and the development of a “principal pipeline” to make sure all schools have strong leaders.
The son of former Massachusetts Secretary of State Michael Connolly, he was first elected to the city council in 2007 and currently chairs the council’s education committee.
In what many at the time viewed as a politically bold — if not daring — act, Connolly declared his intention to run for mayor before the popular Menino announced he was retiring — the only candidate in yesterday’s field to do so.
Menino opted not to run again as he battled a series of health problems in recent years, including prostate surgery in June and a fractured leg in April. He was hospitalized for about six weeks last year with a respiratory infection and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
Walsh and Connolly’s nearest contenders were former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley.
The other hopefuls included City Councilor Felix Arroyo; former school committee member John Barros; radio station owner Charles Clemons; City Councilor Robert Consalvo; City Councilor Michael Ross; community organizer Bill Walczak; former schoolteacher David Wyatt; and City Councilor Charles Yancey.
The election is nonpartisan, but Walsh and Connolly are both Democrats, as is Menino, who had pledged to stay neutral in the race.
As of 6 p.m., two hours before the polls closed, about 86,000 votes had been cast. That was significantly ahead of the last preliminary election for mayor in 2009, when just over 60,000 people had voted as of 6 p.m. Menino was facing three challengers in that election.
Among the challenges facing the next mayor will be choosing a new police commissioner to replace Edward Davis, who announced Monday he would be stepping down later this year after seven years in the post.