Numbers show a sharply divided electorate in Second Suffolk

Along with asking for a recount, the two Democratic candidates in a close race for state senate in the Second Suffolk District are bracing for the possibility of yet another rematch. At a meeting tonight with supporters at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Grove Hall, Senator Dianne Wilkerson said, if the recount fails to give her the nomination, she will run as a Democratic sticker candidate in the final election November 4.

In the Democratic primary last week, Wilkerson finished behind second-time challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz by 228 votes. On Tuesday afternoon, the Boston Election Dept. announced it would do a recount in four wards covering parts of the district in Roxbury, the South End, and Jamaica Plain. Recount petitions had been filed by both candidates.

The candidates also asked for a recount after the close race two years ago, when Wilkerson failed to get on the primary ballot and ran a sticker campaign. On election night in 2006, Wilkerson was ahead by only 141 votes. Both candidates picked up additional votes in the recount, which increased Wilkerson's margin to 692 votes.

In this year's primary election, Wilkerson came up short, despite support from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, along with endorsements from labor unions and the Latino political group, Oiste!.

When she spoke to supporters on election night, Wilkerson also blamed the outcome on the "inordinate amount of money" contributed to the Chang-Diaz campaign by fundraiser Barbara Lee. Wilkerson said she was afraid it meant the district "was for sale."

"I think the issue, the idea that one woman should have so much influence in what happens in this district," she said, "it bothers me to no end."

Since the election of 1974, the Second Suffolk District has been all but officially maintained for a black office-holder. After almost 16 years in office, and even in her post-election speech, Wilkerson was still trying to reconcile the district's historic black identity with its current multi-racial population - encompassing Roxbury and part of Dorchester, along with the Back Bay, the South End, Bay Village, Chinatown, the Fenway, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain.

On the one hand, Wilkerson took issue with a voter who criticized her for representing only Roxbury. On the other hand, there were the figures showing it was possible to get elected in the district without carrying the black vote.

"I think what this proves is that you could be a state senator without representing a good core of this community," said Wilkerson said on election night, "and that makes me sick."

But the population represented by Wilkerson has also been changed by the redistricting after the last federal census in 2000. As a result of those changes, the district lost 16 predominantly black precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan. Added to the newly-drawn district were Ward 8 (Lower Roxbury and the South End), along with precincts in the Back Bay, South End, and Jamaica Plain. In 20 of the new precincts, whites were in the majority or at least were the largest racial group.

But at the meeting Tuesday night in Grove Hall, Wilkerson supporters said her defeat would be a setback for black and Latino representation throughout the state.

The City Councillor for District 7 (Roxbury and Dorchester), Chuck Turner, said there had to be a seat in the senate that would be for someone "rooted in the politics of the black and Latin community."

"We are in a battle," said Reverend Miniard Culpepper, Pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist church in Roxbury. "If you think Dianne lost just because somebody thought it was a good idea to run, you're wrong."

Right after Wilkerson's announcement, supporter Robert Marshall started calling for volunteers.

"This is bigger than Senator Wilkerson," he said. "It's about us stepping up to the plate."

In a statement issued the same night, the Chang-Diaz campaign said it was confident she would come out ahead in the recount. After her party on election night in Jamaica Plain at the Alchemist Restaurant Lounge, Chang-Diaz credited her victory to the mood of the voters.

"Voters have been telling us over and over again that they are frustrated and they want new leadership," she said.

In her second run for the seat, Chang-Diaz tried to reinforce that feeling by drawing attention to Wilkerson's settlement over campaign finance violations six weeks before the primary. Though Wilkerson called the violations "errors of accounting," some went farther--accurately or not - in their conclusions about how the campaign money had been used. And media reports about Wilkerson's difficulties with the settlement continued even after the election.

When asked two weeks earlier at a forum In Jamaica Plain what she would do to uphold the laws on campaign finance, Wilkerson responded with seven syllables: "Try my best to follow them."

Chang-Diaz then said she would uphold the laws, not just try. And that prompted Wilkerson to add, "I don't want anybody to take my fifteen-second answer as less than serious. I'm very serious about this issue."

After the polls closed last Tuesday, Chang-Diaz supporters took pride in the campaign's ability to identify and turn out voters, with little time wasted on trying to create buzz.

Chang-Diaz acknowledged role of contributions - from Barbara Lee, but also the small amounts from other supporters, along with volunteer work, some of it by grassroots activists at her celebration.

"I'm very happy to have Barbara's support. She has been an advocate to progressive women leaders that we have been very fortunate to have in this state," said Chang-Diaz.

"None of the money is from lobbyists."

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The figures from Sept. 16 show Wilkerson winning the predominantly black precincts in Roxbury and part of Dorchester between Grove Hall and the Franklin Field area. She also carried the bulk of Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8) and precincts with subsidized housing developments such as Bromley-Heath, Mission Park, Alice Heyward Taylor, and developments along the Southwest Corridor. Chang-Diaz carried precincts in the Back Bay, the South End and Bay Village, part of the Mission Hill area, and nearly every precinct in Jamaica Plain.

The outcome has prompted the conclusion that turnout was higher in precincts carried by Chang-Diaz. But it might be more correct to say that Wilkerson could have used more help with voter registration. As for the percentage of registered voters who turned out for the election, the total for the Second Suffolk race was 17.3 percent. In the precincts carried by Chang-Diaz, the turnout was 16.5 percent. In the precincts carried by Wilkerson, it was 16.7 percent.

Sticker campaigns usually gather less support than a place on the ballot, but Marshall notes Wilkerson has already won a sticker campaign. Though Wilkerson could very well benefit more than Chang-Diaz from the higher turnout in the November, two of her most prominent supporters--Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino - would have to choose between the candidate they backed in the primary and, barring a reversal in the recount, the nominee of the Democratic Party.

When she spoke Tuesday night, Wilkerson said if she did go ahead with a sticker campaign, she would oppose the party nominee as a Democrat.

"This ain't Lieberman," she said, referring to the US Senator from Connecticut who left the party and later endorsed the Republican nominee for President, John McCain.

"I'm not an Independent," said Wilkerson. "I'm a Democrat."

Some of Wilkerson's supporters also expressed dismay over a racial divide in the primary vote. But one supporter acknowledged that many of the same voters in consistently progressive areas who went for Chang-Diaz had voted two years ago for Deval Patrick as Governor and would probably support Barack Obama for President.

In the longer term, the racial identity of the district could also shift with the population and new changes in boundaries. Given its current population, Boston's adjoining First Suffolk state senate district also has the potential for electing candidates of color. Though the district still contains South Boston, it also includes Dorchester and part of Mattapan. According to the 2000 census, whites accounted for one-third of the district's population, while blacks were at more than 40 percent--a number which has most likely increased.