Fallen senator was once a reformer

December 5, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Dianne Wilkerson’s 15-year run as a powerful state senator ended dramatically enough: a close loss in the September primary election, followed by her October arrest by the FBI on bribe-taking charges.

Now Wilkerson, who resigned on Nov. 19, is enduring smaller indignities. She got in trouble last week with Senate President Therese Murray for reportedly violating an agreement to clean out her office only on weekends “so as not to be disruptive,” according to Murray spokesperson David Falcone.

Wilkerson’s staff members—who remain on duty to handle constituent services—were relocated the next day to Room 70 in the State House, where Wilkerson is not allowed to go. Constituents can call 722-1673 for the staff’s help until Sonia Chang-Díaz takes over as the local state senator in January.

Wilkerson was ruled indigent—at least in terms of being able to afford legal representation—by a federal judge in a ruling made public last week. Max Stern, the attorney who has been representing her in recent months, was appointed to continue in the position at government expense. Stern did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

State senators make around $58,000 a year in base salary, but Wilkerson has a long history of financial troubles. Federal prosecutors did not review Wilkerson’s legal representation motion, the details of which are sealed, according to US Attorney’s Office spokesperson Christina DiIorio-Sterling.

Wilkerson, now headed for another federal court hearing on Dec. 8, is destined to be replaced in the 2nd Suffolk District Senate seat by a first-time elected official who won with a slogan of “ethics and accountability.”

But 16 years ago, Wilkerson was that first-time elected official, and her winning slogan was, “We can do better.”

The reformer

The Boston Globe called the dramatic September primary election a “stunning upset.” A young woman of color unseated a powerful incumbent—the state’s lone African-American senator—who had a charismatic presence and a rap sheet. Waving the flag of reform, the challenger won despite being labeled as a carpetbagger backed by wine-and-cheese-eating elites.

“The great thing about the vote is that it dispels the notion that people don’t care,” the winner said. “Our position has always been that, given a choice, people would opt for change, and they did that Tuesday in a very loud and resounding way.”

It sounds like Chang-Díaz’s 2008 win over Wilkerson. In fact, it is the Globe’s account of Wilkerson’s 1992 win over Bill Owens.

Wilkerson was 37 when she overthrew Owens, a 54-year-old native of the Deep South who had served prison time for stabbing two men he believed had racially insulted his wife.

Chang-Díaz, at age 30, overthrew Wilkerson, a 53-year-old native of the Deep South who had served house arrest and halfway house time for failure to pay federal income taxes.

While Owens trumpeted big-money earmarks he secured in the state budget, Wilkerson criticized him for blocking or not delivering important legislation. Chang-Díaz would later make similar criticisms of Wilkerson.

Owens fired back by saying Wilkerson was backed by an “elite group” and ignored the “have-nots” of the district. He pointed out that she didn’t even live in the d
istrict until about a month before the election.
This year, Wilkerson disdainfully noted that Chang-Díaz lives in JP, not in the Roxbury/Dorchester “core” of the district. Wilkerson campaign supporters derided Chang-Díaz’s backing from what was perceived as the rich, white Ward 19 area of JP.

The parallels between the two elections are not exact, of course. Perhaps the most notable difference between Wilkerson in 1992 and Chang-Díaz in 2008 is that Wilkerson was already known across the city and came with higher expectations. Wilkerson was vice president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a successful civil rights attorney. Her triumphs had included helping to end racial discrimination in Boston public housing units
.
But within five years, Wilkerson faced the federal income tax charges, which largely derailed her chances of holding a higher-profile office.

Chang-Díaz, the new reformer in the 2nd Suffolk seat, has already made more concrete pledges to keep up the reformist attitude than Wilkerson ever did. That included an election promise to never break campaign finance laws—Wilkerson’s latest legal problem at the time.