Senate candidates make their pitches

August 29, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

This year’s race for the local 2nd Suffolk District state Senate seat is a case of déjà vu.

Just like in 2006, longtime incumbent Dianne Wilkerson is facing a Democratic primary challenge from Jamaica Plain activist Sonia Chang-Díaz. Just like in 2006, Wilkerson’s decade-long history of financial scandals is virtually the only issue in the race.

It remains to be seen if the final results will be different from 2006, when Chang-Díaz won the JP vote, but Wilkerson was re-elected district-wide.

Both candidates recently made their pitches in separate interviews with the Gazette. Voters can see the candidates for themselves at a forum scheduled for next week, before the Sept. 16 primary election. [See JP Agenda.]

Chang-Díaz and Wilkerson are both progressives with nearly identical political views. Chang-Díaz, a former Wilkerson supporter, has said Wilkerson’s recent campaign funds scandal inspired her to run against the incumbent.

Last month, Wilkerson acknowledged that she violated campaign finance reporting laws in 2000-04 and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine. [See related article.]

Wilkerson has downplayed the violations as “matters of record keeping and accounting.” She said new campaign committee policies will prevent any further mistakes.

In a Gazette phone interview, Chang-Díaz continued to question Wilkerson’s “ethics and accountability.”

“It really harms our ability to affect changes we need in the district when people feel cynical about the process,” Chang-Díaz said.

Chang-Díaz is a former public school teacher and staff member at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, an independent think tank. She also served as a legislative aide to former state Sen. Cheryl Jacques.

Chang-Díaz presents herself as a scandal-free version of Wilkerson. Both candidates cited similar priority issues to tackle: youth violence, public school reform, health care and economic development.

Wilkerson, on the other hand, has a 15-year history of delivering programs and funding in those areas. In an interview at the Gazette office, she said she is positioned to do even more now that the Democratic legislature is working with a Democratic governor for the first time in her tenure. Wilkerson boasts Gov. Deval Patrick as one of her endorsers.

A recent local example was Wilkerson’s success in securing a $5.7 million slot in the state’s Environmental Bond Bill for the Kelly Rink, a recreational facility intended as a key piece of the forthcoming Jackson Square redevelopment.

Wilkerson has battled before to get Kelly Rink funds, only to see them die in committee or under a governor’s veto. There was clearly more gubernatorial interest and support this time around.

The rink was one of many recent achievements, often with a focus on society’s most vulnerable members, cited by Wilkerson.

“I was trying to find someone who could tell me the last time a recreational facility had been built in this section of the city,” Wilkerson said of her interest in the Kelly Rink. The most recent one anyone could name, she said, is Roxbury’s Cass Rink, built in the 1960s.

In 2006 forums, Chang-Díaz frequently deferred to Wilkerson’s expertise on such complex issues as car insurance. That issue will be one of many to address in the next term, Wilkerson said. “I think we’ll begin to see exactly what I predicted”—giant increases in the car insurance rates when a premium cap goes up next spring, she said. She said she would hold Patrick to his promise to repeal the rate-setting law if massive increases result.

Both candidates cited the costs of the state’s groundbreaking health insurance requirement law as a crucial issue. Unexpectedly high numbers of people signing up for subsidized health insurance have strained the state budget.

Noting that the point of the law was to get everyone health insurance, Wilkerson said with a laugh, “Well, it worked. The good news is that it worked. The bad news is that it worked. So now we have to figure out how to pay for it.”
Other issues

In one difference from 2006, Chang-Díaz is now raising other concerns about Wilkerson’s record, largely about real estate developments. Wilkerson could not immediately be reached for comment about those criticisms.

The candidates have differing positions on the affordable housing component of the proposed redevelopment around the Forest Hills T Station. Guidelines developed in a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)-led community process have proposed a goal of 50 percent affordable housing. That goal has stirred neighborhood controversy.

In a letter distributed at one of the BRA meetings, Wilkerson criticized the 50 percent goal as out of line with typical BRA standards.

“I believe that the concerns raised by so many of you in the impacted area are not NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard]. I, too, have grave concerns about the 50% and I do believe that it is not balance,” Wilkerson wrote.

Chang-Díaz notes that the BRA itself determined that the percentage matches Forest Hill’s current economic makeup. “Part of what makes Jamaica Plain so great is it has economic diversity,” she said, explaining her support of the 50 percent goal.

Chang-Díaz complained that Wilkerson supports Boston University’s controversial South End biolab, saying she has safety and “environmental justice” concerns about that under-construction facility.

Chang-Díaz also criticized Wilkerson for seeking public subsidies for the stalled Columbus Center project in the Back Bay/South End. “It’s very much about luxury housing, luxury hotels, high-end uses,” Chang-Díaz said. “Is it an appropriate place to use subsidized dollars?…Public coffers are not just a grab bag for special projects in your neighborhood.”

Chang-Díaz noted that she supports “Clean Elections”—public funding of candidates who agree to spending limits—and says Wilkerson does not. The state’s Clean Elections law was repealed five years ago amidst controversy about its funding and reported abuses.
2006 vs. 2008

There’s no doubt that the 2006 election was a wake-up call for Wilkerson, who beat Chang-Díaz by only about 700 votes. But the candidates have different takes on the meaning of that result.

Chang-Díaz notes that she drew 44 percent of the vote despite being a first-time candidate who entered the race so late she was forced to run a write-in campaign.

“It says a huge amount about how weary people are [of Wilkerson’s leadership],” Chang-Díaz said. This year, with her name on the ballot and a full campaign season to work with, she said she can do better than a strong second-place finish.

The Gazette noted that voters have re-elected Wilkerson seven times, despite various financial scandals. Chang-Díaz said that is only because voters have been told they must accept Wilkerson’s flaws if they want a progressive in office.

“We should never ask voters to make that choice,” she said, suggesting that this year, voters will realize they can have a progressive candidate who is scandal-free.

On the other hand, Wilkerson’s biggest problem in 2006 may not have been any scandal. In an embarrassing error, she also had to run as a write-in candidate because her campaign committee failed to turn in 300 valid voter signatures to put her name on the ballot.

“I worked too hard,” Wilkerson told the Gazette, explaining the signature mistake. “I’m a horrible delegator.” She was too focused on her Senate work to make sure the signature count was right, she said.

This year, Wilkerson’s campaign is clearly more organized. She turned in more than 3,000 signatures to make the ballot and make a point. She has several high-profile consultants, including Dan Cence, who was press secretary for former gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli. Her campaign has an extensive web site listing her achievements neighborhood by neighborhood.

“I’m not taking anything for granted,” Wilkerson said.

Both candidates are campaigning relentlessly. Chang-Díaz spoke to the Gazette during a break from her extensive door-knocking campaign around the district. That brand of one-on-one campaigning—what she called “small-d democracy”—suits her best, she said. She added that during many of those front-stoop conversations, voters say she is the first candidate to visit in years, if ever.

“One woman was just about to have her [US] citizenship swearing-in in a couple weeks, and I was going to be the first candidate she voted for,” Chang-Díaz said of one door-knocking discussion. “It was such a thrill.”

Wilkerson visited the Gazette office after a day of meetings with various immigrant community groups around the district, which also includes Roxbury, Mission Hill, Dorchester, Mattapan, Chinatown, Beacon Hill, the Back Bay and the South End.

She noted the 2nd Suffolk is a diverse district unusually impacted by poverty, struggling schools and youth violence, among other issues. When the Gazette suggested that JP is a “microcosm” of the district, Wilkerson agreed: “It’s one of the neighborhoods where you see a little bit of everything.”

But JP’s residents bring more to the table than just diversity, she added. “They’re deliberative in their process and serious about their politics,” she said. “I think there is a lot of appreciation here for hard work.”

Whichever candidate works hard enough to win the Sept. 16 primary will face Socialist Workers Party candidate William Leonard in the Nov. 4 final election.

For more information, see www.diannedelivers08.com and www.soniachangdiaz.com.