State Senate battle tops Sept. 16 primary election

September 12, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


<span class=Carla Guevara (center), Hyde Square Task Force Volunteer, and Carl Decoteau (right), intern with the Coalition to Educate, Mobilize and Vote, register voters during a HSTF Summer Night Out.

Incumbent Dianne Wilkerson and Jamaica Plain challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz will finish their battle for the local 2nd Suffolk District state Senate seat in the Sept. 16 Democratic primary election.

Wilkerson previously fended off Chang-Díaz in the 2006 election. At a local candidate forum last week, Wilkerson showed the strengths that have kept her in office for eight terms. A charismatic and knowledgeable speaker, she presented herself as a crusader for the vulnerable and a progressive in tune with the district.

Chang-Díaz proved to be a more seasoned candidate than she was in 2006, when she often deferred to Wilkerson’s expertise in debates. This time, Chang-Díaz went toe-to-toe with Wilkerson in one of the most substantial, issue-based local candidate forums in years. The candidates expressed clear policy differences on such issues as Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

Chang-Díaz managed to put Wilkerson on the defensive about the campaign’s core issue: Wilkerson’s long history of legal trouble, including her recent admission to violating campaign finance laws.

Wilkerson at one point accused Chang-Díaz of negative campaigning that emphasizes Wilkerson as someone “convicted of a crime,” which Chang-Díaz later denied.

Wilkerson also criticized the Gazette in front of various attendees after the forum, making accusations of negative coverage and lack of coverage while implying that the Gazette is an agent for Chang-Díaz.

The Sept. 4 forum at English High School was held by the Wards 11 and 19 Democratic Committees. The Ward 11 committee later endorsed Wilkerson, as did the Hyde Square-area Ward 10 committee. But neither candidate could muster the two-thirds majority vote to get the Ward 19 endorsement—an unusual blow for an incumbent.

Both candidates’ recent campaign finance reports show an interesting money race. From Jan. 1 through the end of August, Wilkerson spent almost twice as much as Chang-Díaz. But going into the final two weeks of the campaign, Chang-Díaz had almost 10 times more cash in the bank than the incumbent.
Meet the candidates

At the forum, Wilkerson emphasized the hardships and sacrifices of her life story. As her campaign web site puts it, she went from being born in “Grandma’s shotgun shack in the Deep South” to becoming one of the first African-American women partners at a major Boston law firm. At that pinnacle, making a comfortable $90,000 a year, she quit to run for the Senate seat.

“I walked away from it because I didn’t think it was enough that my family was doing OK,” Wilkerson said.

In her 16 years in office, she has built a record of dozens of progressive stands on a wide variety of issues. She noted that not all of those stands were popular. The most famous case was her vocal opposition to a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which she likened to racial discrimination in a dramatic Senate speech. That stance was extremely unpopular in perhaps her strongest voting base in the district’s African-American churches.

“I have had to tell people, ‘You don’t have to get married to a same-sex person if you don’t want to,’” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson highlighted more progressive stands, both past (forcing insurers to cover birth control pills) and future (calling for state schools to accept undocumented immigrants).

“This election is about leadership,” she said.

Chang-Díaz only touched on her own personal history: daughter of an astronaut; a former public school teacher in Lynn; former aide to progressive state Sen. Cheryl Jacques; director of outreach at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a think tank.

Instead, she focused on idealistic statements to position herself as a reformer. Chang-Díaz said that Wilkerson “harms the progressive agenda” by asking voters to choose between “good votes” and “ethics and accountability”—a reference to Wilkerson’s financial scandals.

Chang-Díaz said she has met voters on the campaign trail who have become cynical due to such scandals. “‘I’m not voting again,’” she said one man told her. “‘You can’t trust these politicians. They’re all bums.’”

Chang-Díaz invoked the party’s presidential nominee, Barack Obama, against Wilkerson, quoting him as saying the Democrats should be “‘the party of how things should be, not how things are.’”
Financial scandals

In July, Wilkerson acknowledged violating election fund reporting laws in 2000-04 and agreed to pay a $10,000 personal fine, among other sanctions. It was her second campaign finance-related fine in 10 years. She has downplayed the violations as record-keeping errors.

In 1997, Wilkerson was convicted of willful failure to file federal income taxes. She got into further trouble for violating house arrest. Her law license was suspended.

An audience question at the forum asked the candidates what they would do to “uphold” campaign finance laws.

“Try my best to follow them. That’s all I can say,” Wilkerson said as her entire answer.

“I’m going to answer this question seriously because I think it’s a serious issue,” Chang-Díaz said. She promised to “not try, but I will uphold [the laws].” She asked that voters scrutinize her own campaign finances, and, “if I ever break that promise to you, that you vote for someone else.”

While rebuttals were not allowed at the forum, Wilkerson quickly jumped back in to add, “I don’t want anybody to take my answer as anything but serious. I’m very serious on that issue.”

Wilkerson’s legal trouble is Chang-Díaz’s main inspiration for running against her. In her closing statement, Wilkerson accused Chang-Díaz of turning the criticisms into negative door-to-door campaigning.

“If you’re one of those people who get a knock on the door and [are] asked if you would vote for someone who has been convicted of a crime, I would hope you would see through that,” Wilkerson said.

“I don’t think that’s in touch with reality,” Chang-Díaz later told the Gazette, saying that such comments are not in her door-knocking script or overall campaign strategy.

Biolab

Boston University’s controversial biological laboratory in the South End—intended to include a section housing some of the world’s most dangerous bacteria and viruses—has emerged as an issue in the race.

Chang-Díaz opposes its construction outright on what she calls a scientific basis. She has also publicly characterized Wilkerson as a biolab supporter.

But Wilkerson told the Gazette she is not a supporter. Her comments in the forum indicated something more like a grudging acceptance and a desire for extensive regulations.

“No one gets up in the morning and says, ‘I think I’d like to have a biolab in our back yard,’” Wilkerson said. “We won’t ever let this happen again.” She has joined legislative efforts to increase local regulation and review of such labs.

But Wilkerson’s answer was later called unclear, not only by Chang-Díaz, but also by Klare Allen, a Roxbury resident and leader of the anti-biolab group Safety Net.

“When Senator Wilkerson talks about the biolab, it’s as if it’s a done deal,” Chang-Díaz told the Gazette. She said she understands Wilkerson’s regulatory efforts, but added, “That doesn’t mean this [review process] is done. We can’t gloss that over with words.”

“It’s very creative how she worded it,” Allen said of Wilkerson’s answer. “It’s great we have someone running against her who says, ‘I don’t want this. It’s too much risk.’”

Allen also said Wilkerson, unlike all other local elected officials, has not been available to Safety Net. “She hasn’t taken any of our calls for six years,” Allen said. “We’ve never been able to sit down with her and talk about it.”

Pressed for clarification after the forum, Wilkerson told the Gazette, “I don’t support a biolab, but if we don’t get this [one] and lose it, what happens?” Among her questions, she said, is whether the federal government, which would fund the lab, would simply come around again with a new plan.

Wilkerson also maintained that her “gets up in the morning” answer was “very clear.”

Crime, schools and foreclosures

With both candidates being progressive Democrats, experience-versus-change has become a theme of both campaigns. Wilkerson has served for more than 15 years, while Chang-Díaz has never held an elected office.

Wilkerson criticized several of Chang-Díaz’s proposals as abstract policies that make little sense in living rooms or on the streets. Meanwhile, Chang-Díaz attempted to turn Wilkerson’s vast legislative history against her, saying that Wilkerson is good at proposing things, but not so good at building coalitions to actually get them passed.

Asked about the mortgage foreclosure crisis, Wilkerson touted her efforts for a foreclosure moratorium and other protections for homeowners and tenants.

Chang-Díaz said she agrees with Wilkerson’s efforts, but also proposed allowing “short sales” of homes without tax penalties. A short sale is when a homeowner is allowed to avoid foreclosure by selling their home for less than its mortgaged value, then giving all of the money to the mortgage lender as payment in full for their debt.

Wilkerson said that encouraging people to sell their homes is not a solution to the foreclosure crisis. “Please don’t do that,” she pleaded to the audience about short sales.

“We have not passed [Wilkerson’s] foreclosure solutions this year, which is a scandal,” Chang-Díaz said, suggesting Wilkerson is partly to blame for poor networking. “We need to not only find the right ideas, but get the legislation passed.”

Wilkerson repeatedly blamed the House for blocking or gutting her proposals. On the other hand, Wilkerson has moved significant legislation through government recently, including securing millions in state bond funding for the proposed Kelly Rink in Jackson Square and forest preservation in Olmsted Park.

Chang-Díaz cited education as her top issue. She advocates several changes to help public schools, including smaller classes, but acknowledged they would cost “millions” more in funding. She suggested the money could come from closing “corporate tax loopholes” and allowing for local-option meals taxes, among other sources.

But Wilkerson noted that state education spending is already relatively high and many of those strategies are already required.

“I think at $22,000 per student [in average education spending], it’s hard to say it’s all about money,” Wilkerson said. What matters, she said, is local decision on how funds are spent—“more a social reality than an issue around money.”

She called for single-sex classes and schools, and more diversity throughout the system, starting with the state Department of Education.

“The only people right now in our [school] system who are truly accountable are our kids,” she said.

The candidates had some differing position on street violence. Chang-Díaz proposed limiting gun buyers to one purchase a month. Wilkerson said she was “incredulous” to hear the proposal, saying that criminals don’t buy guns legally anyway. She said Boston is “not going to jail our way out” of the street violence problem.

Media coverage

In a conversation after the forum, Wilkerson criticized the Gazette as campaign staff and audience members looked on. She said that the Gazette found ways to “drag out” negative stories, while also claiming that no other Gazette reporter had interviewed her in 16 years, leaving JP residents “without information” about her.

In fact, the Gazette has interviewed Wilkerson before, quoting her in about two-dozen stories in that time, and citing her in many more. Wilkerson has frequently been unavailable for comment. She declined all Gazette election-related interview requests during her entire 2006 campaign.

Wilkerson also complained about the Gazette requesting her responses to some of Chang-Díaz’s criticisms. Wilkerson characterized that as the Gazette acting on Chang-Díaz’s behalf, in what campaign staffer Jeff Ross termed “prosecution by media.” Chang-Díaz should make any criticisms directly to Wilkerson herself, Wilkerson said.

Other races

Other Democratic primary races include incumbent Willie Mae Allen and challenger Kathy Gabriel battling for the 6th Suffolk District state House seat, which includes Woodbourne. Gabriel accused Allen of “lack of leadership,” pledging, “I will not abandon you.”

“Nobody can ever stand up and say, ‘Willie Mae Allen abandoned us,’” Allen retorted to loud applause. Allen won the Ward 19 endorsement.

US Sen. John Kerry is once again facing a challenge from a progressive challenger—this time, Gloucester lawyer Ed O’Reilly, who reportedly briefly attended the English High forum. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, infuriated liberal party members with his vote to authorize the Iraq War.

Two local members of the Governor’s Council also face primary challenges. The Governor’s Council reviews judicial appointments, among other responsibilities.

District 4 incumbent Christopher Iannella, a JP resident, touted his vote to put fellow JP resident Maureen Monks into a Middlesex County family court judgeship. Monks’ nomination was controversial.

Robert Toomey of Abington, a former Boston Police officer, is running against Iannella. He indicated he would have a more conservative mindset, jovially joking he was “in the lion’s den” at the forum.

Also running is Stephen Flynn, who did not appear at the forum.

In District 2, Kelly Timilty is being challenged by attorney Robert Jubinville, who pledged to explain all of his votes if elected.

Local state Reps. Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez have no primary election competition.

Links:

* Dianne Wilkerson web site: www.diannedelivers08.com

* Sonia-Chang Diaz web site: www.soniachangdiaz.com

* Candidates’ campaign finance reports at state Office of Campaign and Political Finance: www.mass.gov/ocpf