Dianne Wilkerson and the damage done

At dinner tables, on the street and in church in Dorchester, discussions of state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and what it means for black politics are running apace with those about the first African-American president this country has ever seen.

The elation for Barack Obama's victory is felt, but it is tainted by the dramatic fall of the woman who was the highest black office-holder in the state for the 13 years before Deval Patrick took the corner office at the State House.
At right: Dianne Wilkerson leaves the stage after announcing the cessation of her sticker candidacy last Friday at Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury. Photo by Pete Stidman

It breaks one of the few connections - maybe the only rock-solid one - Boston's black community has to the higher body of the general court of the Commonwealth, leaves a hole in the heart of many supporters, and raises serious questions about the community's devout respect for its incumbents, a tendency that reigns throughout the state regardless of race.

"It brings so much shame to the community. It's just so unbelievable," said Iris Harris, a grandmother from Dorchester. "For so long we held her up on a pedestal. Because we held her up so high, even though we heard about the tax evasion and stuff like that, we kind of overlooked it."

Harris and many others still show a form of that profound respect and trust - along with a cynicism about the white-dominated establishment - when they question the timing of Wilkerson's arrest, the week before Election Day.

"Okay, why didn't you bring it out three months earlier? Why did you wait till a week before the election," said Harris. "It's like… Obama's running. She's a state senator who was a black woman. So what are you trying to say? We're all criminals?"

Others in the community go further, claiming she was set up, even in the face of photographic, video and sound recordings taken by FBI agents.

"I've been hearing it was a set-up and all that and I'm just tired of it," said Pat Williams, who puts out The Word newsletter that reaches many in the district. "I can kind of sympathize with people because of how they feel about her but enough is enough."

Boyce Slayman, Wilkerson's campaign manager, has not returned a phone call for comment made Friday, when Wilkerson announced she was suspending her campaign flanked by ministers from the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Ten-Point Coalition at Roxbury's Charles Street A.M.E. church on Warren Street.

On Sunday, Wilkerson sat in the front row of her own church, the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, for an 11 a.m. service, her bible open on her lap.

Rev. John M. Borders gave the large congregation "a sermon and a half" in between gospel sung by one of the city's most impressive choirs to address the "atmosphere" created by Obama's surge to win the presidency and the "storm" that surrounded one of the church's members. He condemned the act of extortion - one of the charges facing Wilkerson - as not acceptable on judgment day, but emphasized that all, even he, are sinners.

"I try to do what's right, but sometimes that old wicked monkey [the devil] gets the best of me," he said. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

He later asked everyone to tell as many people as they can find "I need the Lord's forgiveness," and many swarmed around the Senator and heard her say those words.

"I pray for Dianne," Borders said in closing. "She's got a hill to climb."

Facing as much as 40 years in prison and $250,000 in fines in addition to the attention she has drawn upon herself by allegedly accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover agents posing as out-of-state developers, it is indeed a very steep and torturous hill. But as much as Border's sermon was a way to steel the senator for her own personal journey, it was also a way to heal the church community whose most prominent member has fallen from a lofty height using forgiveness.

That process may prove more difficult for the greater part of Wilkerson's district, and the black community that stretches beyond it. For one, many feel that Sonia Chang-Diaz - who won not only on a few differences on issues, but more likely because of Wilkerson's tax-evasion, possible perjury in court, and campaign financing irregularities - will not adequately represent the district.

Williams, who lives in the Mattapan section of the district, said she has voted for Wilkerson in the past, but could not bring herself to vote either way in this year's primary. By many accounts, she was not alone among Wilkerson's core constituents.

"She's got a lot of support from Jamaica Plain and those communities that have a predominantly white community," said Williams of Chang-Diaz. "I always think that if a politician gets support from a community, they reward that community. I'm thinking that Dorchester and Roxbury might not get as much attention."

Of course, Chang-Diaz promotes the opposite idea, and said this week that she is "respectfully" reaching out to voters and leaders in the district.

"It's think it's been a really hard week in the district," she said. "It's important to do everything I can to reach out to those that have had partnerships with Dianne Wilkerson over the years… to let them know that my door is open."

Another side effect of the charges against Wilkerson as well has Chang-Diaz's primary victory may be more tolerance for younger people who challenge the numerous incumbents in the city, black, white, Latino, or Asian - for, as many point out, House Speaker Sal DiMasi is answering some ethical questions as well, and a fear of running against incumbents is one of this state's signature phenomena.

"It has long been time for the black political leadership to be shaken up, but this is definitely not the way I would have wanted it at all… It's just depressing. I read the affidavit and I had to go home and have some quiet time," said Project Hip-Hop's Mariama White-Hammond, a woman many have encouraged to run for office. "After we recover from the shock, I'm hoping that instead of making us more cynical, it will spur us to stop talking and start acting."

Political veteran Mel King, a former state rep. and 1983 mayoral candidate, echoed White-Hammond's words. "I think the shock will stick with them for a moment, and then people will think about what they want in the next person and work to see it happen," he said this week, adding that if a young candidate wants to run for office, they better organize, because "that race began yesterday."

If Chang-Diaz fails to secure a strong following in Roxbury and Grove Hall, or perhaps even if she does, she is likely to receive some strong challengers in 2010.