The return of Dianne Wilkerson

March 27, 2015
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Of all of the twists and turns of Boston’s Olympics bid, perhaps the most surprising is the public reappearance of Dianne Wilkerson.

JP’s former state senator’s last public activities here were in 2008, when her reelection attempt collapsed with her FBI arrest for taking bribes. After her release from federal prison in 2013, she has kept a low profile. But in recent weeks, she has emerged as a pundit on the Olympics bid, first writing about in the South End News, and recently asking questions from the audience at Franklin Park’s meeting about the plan.

Wilkerson met with the Gazette on March 11 at JP Licks to discuss her return to public life and her interest in the Olympics bid.

“Public service is in my blood,” she said.

“I love it. It gives my life meaning. But right now I don’t have any plans to join the dark side,” meaning elected office, she joked. “It’s not my plan today, but I will intentionally leave that door open.”

At her sentencing in 2011, the prosecutor asked the judge to forbid Wilkerson from ever running for office again, Wilkerson told the Gazette. The judge refused, telling the prosecutor, “That’s for the people to decide,” Wilkerson related.

Speaking of the bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety, aimed at reforming the criminal justice system, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and funded by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, Wilkerson said that she would have a lot to add to that type of discussion.

“There’s something to be said for having someone in that room who has lived that experience” of having been processed through the justice system and has been incarcerated, she said. “I’m committed to finding a way to the table.”

“If there was ever a perfect moment in time, an alignment of the stars, this time [now] could be the charm,” she said.

She said it reminded her of welfare reform discussions that led her to first run in the early 1990s.

She talked of having found full-time employment a mere four days after being released from prison, something that “doesn’t happen to 99.99 percent” of people in that position, she said.

“I realized I was blessed. I had an enormous support network. And I’m so focused on making that an experience for more people,” she said.

Without elaborating, she said she is working on “something new and creative for Boston” that will create job security and support growth for underserved populations. She hinted that her project is only two months away from being announced, but she did say that it uses economic theories based on European cooperative models.

Meanwhile, Wilkerson is working on a master’s degree, via online study at Colorado Christian University, focused on human resources, ethics, organizational behavior and human sociology. Her thesis is about the Olympics and similar events.

“It’s about the human impact versus the financial impact for host cities of major sporting events” like the Olympics, she told the Gazette. For lower-income and communities of color “like Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, the experiences [in Olympics host cities] have been nothing short of disastrous and occasionally fatal.”

“Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan have been bypassed by every major boom,” Wilkerson said. She warned of “scary” gentrification possibilities and said that unless the City of Boston gets out in front of potential problems, they will come to pass.

“The fact that this [gentrification] is not front and center scares me. If we don’t work to avoid this, it will happen,” she said. “And I don’t feel like it’d being addressed.”

Wilkerson also had some thoughts about current state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, who defeated Wilkerson in the 2008 Democratic primary on an ethics platform. That was shortly before Wilkerson’s FBI arrest killed her desperate write-in campaign to retain the office.

“Comparing me would be unfair,” Wilkerson said. “I think people have different leadership styles. The thing that was so exciting about the 2nd Suffolk [district] is that it’s the most diverse district in the state. The challenge is to serve that population in such a way that everyone feels listened to.”

“It’s challenging,” Wilkerson continued. “That has been an especially hard challenge for Senator Chang-Díaz. But it is doable and you have to continue to try.”

“Different constituents felt like I had represented all of them,” Wilkerson said. “People can say that I represented them. I’m proud of that. I’m mindful it’s not an easy job, but [Chang-Díaz] could do better.”

Chang-Díaz declined to comment about Wilkerson’s remarks.

Wilkerson’s political life has been the stuff of drama. Born in the Deep South, she became a well-regarded civil rights attorney in Boston and vice president of the local NAACP. She was the state’s first African-American woman senator and was originally regarded as strong candidate for some higher office, such as mayor or governor. But repeated legal troubles involving her personal and campaign finances limited those prospects, and her bribe-taking arrest made national headlines, especially for a surveillance photo showing her stuffing bribe cash under her shirt at a restaurant table.

With her comeback via the Olympics debate as the latest chapter, the Gazette wondered who might play Wilkerson if a movie were made of her life. She had a ready answer.

“Angela Bassett for me now. Kerry Washington for younger me. And Alfre Woodard for older me,” she said. “I’ve given this a lot of thought.”

Dianne Wilkerson at JP Licks on March 11. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

Dianne Wilkerson at JP Licks on March 11. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

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