Chang-Díaz challenges Wilkerson

March 7, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who gave incumbent state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson a run for her money in the 2006 campaign, is taking another shot at the local Second Suffolk District seat this fall.

“It is the same motivations that motivated me in 2006. I see the same challenges in our neighborhoods,” Chang-Díaz told the Gazette, citing issues of public schools improvements, youth violence prevention and economic development.

Wilkerson declined to comment on the race following a recent JP community meeting. She added that she might not have time to comment by the Gazette deadline, citing pressing work on the state budget and a trip to Ohio to stump for presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Robert Patton-Spruill, a Roxbury filmmaker, is also considering a run for the seat, according to the Dorchester Reporter. Patton-Spruill could not be reached for comment for this article.

It is unclear whether Samiyah Diaz, a South End Republican who ran against Wilkerson in 2006, may join the race. Reached by the Gazette two weeks ago, she said she would call back with comment, but did not.

John Kelleher, a former JP-area state representative who also briefly challenged Wilkerson in 2006, died last month.

Chang-Díaz was Wilkerson’s most serious challenger in ’06, winning the JP vote in the primary election, but losing district-wide as Wilkerson drew a 49 percent plurality. It was a bizarre election where all the candidates were write-ins—including Wilkerson, who failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. Chang-Díaz was a first-time candidate.

Chang-Díaz said that ability to draw a significant percentage of votes in an unusual election, and with no electoral background, sent “a really clear message that there is a desire for change, a great appetite for change.”

This year, Chang-Díaz has entered the race much earlier, and presumably all of the candidates will be careful to get on the ballot this time around.

“The big difference is the campaign is longer, and people know who I am more,” she said.

Wilkerson, a Dorchester resident, is an eight-term incumbent who some local Democratic peers have described to the Gazette as “brilliant.” She has been especially prominent in JP as an advocate for the Jackson Square redevelopment, public transit issues and same-sex marriage.

But Wilkerson has also been dogged by repeated legal and financial scandals over the years—most seriously, a decade-old conviction for failure to file federal income taxes. [See related article on page 11.] Other problems include a still-pending state lawsuit alleging misreported campaign finances and illegal campaign contributions. The state filed yet another campaign finance complaint against Wilkerson on the eve of her 2006 re-election.

In 2006, Chang-Díaz essentially presented herself as a scandal-free version of Wilkerson, with similar progressive politics and no legal baggage. Wilkerson dismissed the scandals as “personal” or “personality” issues that should have no part in campaigns.

This time, Chang-Díaz is placing more emphasis on the issues, too.

A “high ethical standard” is still important she said, adding, “I think it’s a concern for all voters in the district.”

She also referred to general voter engagement.

“I feel our electorate has become more and more cynical,” Chang-Díaz said, adding that the situation makes it hard to achieve changes.

During her first campaign, she said, she met many citizens who did not vote on principle and complained of elected officials, “‘They’re all bums up there. I don’t trust them. I don’t see change in our neighborhoods.’”

She said many such residents said she was the first candidate ever to knock on their doors.

Wilkerson kicked off her 2006 run with a door-knocking campaign in parts of the district.

Chang-Díaz was formerly a top legislative aide to then state Sen. Cheryl Jacques and worked at the Barbara Lee Family Office, a group that assists women who run for public office.

Most recently, Chang-Díaz worked at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, an independent, non-partisan organization that researches state budget issues from the perspective of low- and moderate-income families. Recent issues she worked on there, she said, include the minimum wage, corporate tax “loopholes,” education funding and transparency in the budget process.

Chang-Díaz is now a full-time candidate. She is also on the board of the voting rights group MassVOTE; serves on the parish council of Egleston Square’s St. Mary of the Angels Church; and is active with the local Wards 11 and 19 Democratic committees.

If filmmaker Patton-Spruill runs, he’ll bring a more unusual background to the campaign. He has made a handful of thrillers—including the Boston-based “Squeeze” (1997)—with such well-known actors as Forest Whitaker and David Caruso. Now an artist-in-residence at Emerson College, he drew attention last year with a well-received documentary about the influential political rap group Public Enemy.

The state primary election will be held Sept. 16. The final election—including the presidential vote—will be Nov. 4.

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