Race, incumbent’s legal problems dominate debate in Senate contest
Sonia Chang-Díaz is officially the winner of last month’s state Senate primary election, surviving a recount requested by the incumbent, Dianne Wilkerson. Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, will now face Socialist Workers Party candidate William Leonard on the Nov. 4 ballot for the 2nd Suffolk District seat.
At the same time, the Chang-Díaz/Wilkerson contest is going into extra innings, as Wilkerson is vowing to run in November as a write-in candidate. Wilkerson did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.
The string of legal troubles that made Wilkerson vulnerable to defeat grew longer last week. A 2006 accusation by Boston Police detectives that Wilkerson—who is also an attorney—committed perjury in a homicide case was revived by the state’s Office of the Bar Counsel, which polices the ethics of lawyers. Wilkerson’s law license may be on the line.
Wilkerson blasted the case in a press statement as “politically motivated and a travesty of justice.”
Wilkerson also recently missed key filing deadlines spelled out in a new legal agreement that settled a state lawsuit over her failure to follow campaign finance reporting laws for four years, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF). She was late in paying back unlawful contributions and in filing a memo describing her new methods for making sure contributions are legal.
In a lesser slip-up, the Gazette has learned, Wilkerson’s primary election advertising incorrectly listed local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez as an endorser. In fact, Sánchez told the Gazette when asked about his stance on the Senate race, “I wasn’t part of that. I stayed out of it.” As the Gazette previously reported, Wilkerson’s campaign also incorrectly advertised local City Councilor John Tobin as an endorser.
Actual endorsers have cited two main reasons for Wilkerson to continue fighting against the official Democratic nominee. There is her experience as an eight-term incumbent, a contrast with Chang-Díaz, who has never held an elected office. And there is Wilkerson’s status as the state’s only African-American senator in a district designed in part to give power to Roxbury and Dorchester’s minority communities in a city with a notorious history of racism.
A few of these claims go further, blaming Wilkerson’s defeat on “race division,” as the Boston Banner put it. The idea—apparently based on a selective reading of local election results—is that white voters are now pitted against African-American, Latino and Asian voters.
Some Wilkerson supporters have gone as far as denying that Chang-Díaz is a “person of color,” despite her own ethnic self-definition, and have accused her of changing her name to sound more ethnic. Wilkerson’s campaign has not publicly endorsed or repudiated such claims.
Chang-Díaz said in a Gazette interview that accusations that she is not a person of color are “dishonest” and the name change a misunderstanding.
“I always go back to what I’m hearing from voters,” Chang-Díaz said. “It’s so clear to me there’s so much more uniting this district than is dividing this district.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Party officials are lining up behind Chang-Díaz as the nominee. In an unusual move, Gov. Deval Patrick headlined a public endorsement event for Chang-Díaz this week in the South End. Patrick had endorsed Wilkerson in the primary.
In the midst of this unusual and increasingly bitter campaign, Leonard is something of the odd candidate out. He told the Gazette that he hopes voters will “make up their minds based on the issues.”
The partial recount of the Sept. 16 primary votes narrowed Chang-Díaz’s razor-thin winning margin from 228 votes to 213. That means Chang-Díaz was nominated with just barely a majority of the votes—50.57 percent.
The recount also found possible problems with absentee ballots in JP’s Ward 19 (Pondside/Moss Hill) and other neighborhoods—a potentially big issue on Nov. 4, when the presidential election will also be on the ballot.
A total of 17 ballots district-wide were “unaccounted for,” said Geraldine Cuddyer, chair of the Boston Board of Election Commissioners, in a Gazette interview last week. That is not enough to change the outcome of any race. Almost 18,000 ballots were cast in the election.
Three of those ballots—including one in Ward 19 Precinct 1—may not have really existed, Cuddyer said. Instead, someone may have partially inserted the ballot into the voting machine, then put it all the way in, causing the ballot to be counted twice.
The remaining 14 “unaccounted for” ballots—including five from Ward 19 Precinct 5—exactly matches the number of absentee ballots cast at the same polls, Cuddyer said, calling it an “interesting coincidence.” She said it is possible that poll workers did not properly count the absentee ballots at those polls.
Cuddyer said Election Department officials were looking into the problems and will improve poll worker training as needed.
“These things are done by people, and people make mistakes,” she said.
Wilkerson’s history of legal troubles was a major factor in her defeat, if only because it is the main reason Chang-Díaz cited for running against her—unsuccessfully in 2006, and successfully this year.
“We saw the wonderful affirmation from the voters that people don’t have to choose between progressive values and strong ethics and accountability,” said Chang-Díaz of the election results.
Wilkerson has survived the previous scandals, including a $10,000 fine in 1998 for violating campaign finance laws and a 1997 conviction for failure to file federal income taxes.
In 2005, the state sued Wilkerson again for campaign finance violations. Earlier this year, she agreed to another $10,000 fine and other sanctions to settle that lawsuit.
Wilkerson failed to meet the two key deadlines in that lawsuit settlement agreement a month after signing it in July. OCPF spokesperson Jason Tait said his agency considered forwarding a complaint to the state Attorney General’s Office, which can seek a $2,000 fine per violation of the agreement. But, Tait said, OCPF is now satisfied after Wilkerson eventually made good on the payment and memo filing.
“Yes, they were late to begin with,” Tait said. “As far as we’re concerned, there is no reason to refer her to the attorney general for noncompliance.”
He noted that Wilkerson’s campaign activity will be reviewed regularly under the terms of the agreement, which runs until 2015.
More serious are the perjury allegations. They are based on an unusual criminal case where Wilkerson claimed that one of her nephews is actually guilty of a 1994 killing for which another one of her nephews was convicted.
In various court statements and hearings—and most recently, a Feb. 29 meeting with the Bar Counsel—Wilkerson testified that she was in a police interrogation room when a witness made statements indicating the convicted nephew is innocent, and that detectives turned off a tape recorder so those comments were not recorded.
The detectives said Wilkerson was not there and the tape recorder was not turned off. A judge at a 2005 hearing for a retrial in the case expressed suspicion about Wilkerson’s testimony.
In 2006, the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society—a labor union—filed perjury complaints against Wilkerson with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the Bar Counsel.
In an unusual public statement at the time, the DA’s chief of staff announced that Wilkerson was “under review” for criminal perjury charges in the case. Nothing has happened since then, causing Wilkerson attorney Jeffrey Denner to declare the “silly case” dead earlier this year in a Gazette interview. The DA’s Office has not responded to repeated Gazette requests for comment about the case for two years.
Now the case has popped up again in the form of a civil complaint by Bar Counsel Constance Vecchione, who is a kind of prosecutor of ethics complaints against lawyers. Vecchione accuses Wilkerson of multiple counts of perjury and is requesting that the Board of Bar Overseers sanction Wilkerson for professional misconduct. The strongest sanction possible is loss of her license to practice law in the state.
Wilkerson’s law license is already suspended because of her income tax conviction a decade ago. The suspension expired, but Wilkerson has not applied for reinstatement of the license, according to state records.
“To say that Bar Counsel Vecchione’s decision to move forward with a complaint [at election time] might be politically motivated may be the understatement of the decade,” Wilkerson said in a press statement.
Vecchione did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.
Wilkerson attorney Max Stern said in a press statement he is “absolutely confident” that Wilkerson will be “completely exonerated” by the Bar Overseers.
“No one has ever identified any motive for Senator Wilkerson to make up her testimony,” Stern said. “Her testimony incriminated one nephew in the course of exculpating the other. Both of these young men were very dear to her.”
Wilkerson previously blamed the original complaint on an attempt to deflect attention from a scandal over police officers charged with drug trafficking.
“There’s no politics involved in anything we do. We don’t endorse candidates or anything,” said detectives union President Miller Thomas in a Gazette interview this week, adding that the union had no influence on the timing of the Bar Counsel’s action. He said the union has not filed any new complaints since 2006.
No hearing has been scheduled yet, according to Bar Counsel staff. Wilkerson’s statement indicated there will not be time for one before the election.
The race and race
Wilkerson has many political strengths that have long allowed voters to overlook her legal troubles. A charismatic speaker with deep understanding of policy issues, she has remained popular in her home neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and the South End. She has also been an important national Democratic Party activist, including serving as a senior advisor to US Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
In JP, she recently drew acclaim for her bold support of same-sex marriage and delivering a funding earmark for the Kelly Rink in Jackson Square. [See related article.]
Chang-Díaz, a 30-year-old resident of St. Rose Street near South Street, doesn’t have that legislative history. Her background is more policy than populism. It includes serving as an aide to former state Sen. Cheryl Jacques and jobs with MassVOTE, the Barbara Lee Family Office and the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
Wilkerson was born in the South and worked her way up Boston’s power structure. Chang-Díaz, who has white, Latino and Chinese ethnicity, is the daughter of an astronaut and rocket scientist.
Wilkerson’s supporters have frequently described her legal troubles as secondary to her political and community importance. Chang-Díaz supporters have viewed it the other way around.
Those differences are real enough. Clearly, there will be some sort of difference if the state’s first and only African-American senator no longer holds the seat.
On Election Night, Wilkerson declared herself “sick” that Chang-Díaz won the district “without representing its core.”
“That seat was originally created to be a base of power for Boston’s community of color,” said local City Councilor Chuck Turner, a Wilkerson supporter.
“It doesn’t matter who she is or what her interests are,” he said of Chang-Díaz. “It is going to be difficult for a new senator to protect the interests [of communities of color].”
“The reality is, I have never seen her at all in community meetings,” Turner said of Chang-Díaz. “Her interests and ideas might be similar to mine. [But] she doesn’t have a base in the community.”
Likewise, Turner said, Wilkerson’s legal problems can be overlooked in a time of crisis. “We are at the bottom of the bottom of an economy that is collapsing,” he said. “What that says to me is our politics have to be informed by a pragmatism that protects our base as well as increases it.”
But some Wilkerson supporters have gone much further, essentially saying that: Chang-Díaz is actually white, so she won’t represent Roxbury and Dorchester well; she was supported by white voters; and white liberal voters are abandoning candidates of color.
At Wilkerson’s write-in campaign announcement, supporter Jean McGuire, executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity, reportedly declared Chang-Díaz “not a person of color” both publicly and to the Dorchester Reporter. “There are white Hispanics and there are black Hispanics,” McGuire reportedly told the Reporter.
The theme has been taken up by other Wilkerson supporters, including Turner. He also cited a current rumor that Chang-Díaz added “Díaz” to her name recently to sound more Latina.
“I’m very proud of my Latina heritage,” Chang-Díaz told the Gazette, also noting her Chinese ancestry. “It informs my perspectives on a lot of issues. But I would never ask someone to vote for me solely because I am a person of color.”
As for her name, it is not a political ploy, but actually a study in the American immigrant experience, she said.
“Chang” was originally “Chen” when her great-grandfather emigrated from China. Immigration officials altered it. Her father, Franklin Chang-Díaz, is a Costa Rican native who used both his maternal and paternal last names in the Latin American fashion. When he moved to the US and became a citizen, he dropped “Díaz” because the unhyphenated name was often knocked off by uninformed Americans anyway. During that time, Sonia was born as “Sonia Chang.”
But Franklin could be more assertive after becoming an astronaut, among other achievements, and put “Díaz” back on, with a hyphen to make it stick. After reflecting on his decision, Sonia followed suit sometime in 2005, she said.
“It’s a common experience for immigrants in this country. There’s a lot of smooshing or smudging of names,” Chang-Díaz said.
Another concern, Turner said, was Chang-Díaz’s backing from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization that supports women political candidates and that originally backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Turner said it has largely “white membership” and “pitted gender [against] race” by backing Clinton over the eventual nominee, Barack Obama, who is of white and African heritage.
A series of election articles in the Boston Banner—which endorsed Wilkerson—has interpreted the results solely in whites-versus-minorities racial terms while not mentioning Wilkerson’s legal problems at all. JP, especially Ward 19, has been hit in those articles as part of a white elite. The articles have hinged on Chang-Díaz winning majority-white precincts and Wilkerson winning majority-minority ones.
Ward 19 is certainly includes wealthy neighborhoods and JP’s highest concentration of Republican voters. But not all voting-age residents in any precinct turned out, so the exact demographics of who voted for whom can never be known. Both candidates plainly had ethnically diverse staff and supporters.
Residents of a particular neighborhood often support their local candidate, regardless of race. Councilor Tobin, a white West Roxbury resident, was trounced in JP—including Ward 19—in 2005 by Latino JP resident Gibrán Rivera.
Ward 19 is also relatively new to Wilkerson’s district, added in a 2001 redistricting. It is unclear what steps Wilkerson took to introduce herself there. In any case, there is nothing new about her doing relatively poorly in JP elections, where she has often received unusually high numbers of blanked ballots.
Ward 19 is also represented by, and home to, Sánchez, a Latino who won the seat at a time when his district had been unconstitutionally redrawn as majority-white. Like the rest of JP, Ward 19 has been a bastion of Boston support for Obama.
Chang-Díaz’s neighborhood is in Ward 11. Her state representative is Liz Malia, a white JP resident who represents parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. Malia actively campaigned for Wilkerson this election.
In a letter published last week in the Banner, Wilkerson denied claims that her campaign is “racially divisive,” saying, “Given my solid record of successes and accomplishments, I don’t have to rely on my race. My work is the strongest argument as to why I am the better candidate.”
At the same time, she likened her campaign to the popular late US Rep. Joe Moakley, who once ran as a write-in to defeat the notorious Louise Day Hicks, a white Irish foe of school busing during Boston’s 1970s crisis.
Leonard, meanwhile, complains that both Chang-Díaz and Wilkerson are members of a party that helps the rich elite rather than the working class. The Roxbury resident and packing house worker is running on a Socialist Workers Party ticket that hopes to build a national labor party.
Leonard is largely focused on national issues such as the economic crisis. “I don’t think there is a Massachusetts solution to the problem,” he said, explaining that he would use the Senate seat as a soapbox. “It is the capitalist system that is the problem, not just a couple of people being greedy.”
His positions include immediate legalization of all undocumented immigrants; elimination of criminal-record reporting that prevents people from getting jobs; an end to the Boston Police Safe Home Initiative, which allows police to search juveniles’ rooms with parental permission; and an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, some claims made by City Councilor Chuck Turner about the Barbara Lee Family Foundation that appeared in the print version of this article were not checked with the foundation. In fact, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation is a non-partisan, non-membership organizaion supporting women candidates. The Lee Family Office is also not a membership organization. Founder Barbara Lee supports individual candidates on her own with no coordination with the foundation.