Wilkerson, Chang-Diaz share stage at South End forum

It wasn't exactly a debate. But sitting side-by-side at a "candidates' forum" on Tuesday evening, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz fielded questions from Boston's Ward 4 Democratic Committee on the state's health care law, Gov. Deval Patrick's long-dead casino plan and their legislative priorities.

The meeting was the first between the two in the campaign season. Chang-Diaz told a group of 30 individuals at the Harriet Tubman House in South End that she would "work my tail off" if elected and said her top priority would be pushing for more resources for the Boston public school system.

As a teacher, Chang-Diaz said she used to hoard paper.

"I got through the year by begging my friends in the private sector to sneak home paper for me," she said.

But, she added, voters are tired of hearing from politicians making false promises about they will do once in office. If elected, "Measure me against what incremental progress I've been able to make over the course of the year," she said.

Wilkerson, who has held the office since 1993, said her Senate colleagues regarded her as the "go-to" person on criminal justice, reproductive and foreclosure issues.

"I don't make promises," she said. "I just work."

Chang-Diaz stressed a theme of change, saying, "I believe our district needs new leadership."

Few apparent references were made to Wilkerson's troubles with a conviction for failing to pay federal income taxes and a 2005 lawsuit over campaign finance violations.

Chang-Diaz said voters shouldn't have to choose between progressive ideals and "high standards for ethics and accountability."

"It is a value that is important to voters. That's why we did as well as we did with limited resources," she told the Reporter afterwards, referring to her write-in campaign in 2006 after Wilkerson failed to submit enough valid signatures for her to run. Chang-Diaz received 44 percent of the vote.

Wilkerson said Second Suffolk residents "respect hard work" but also recognize elected officials are "human." "If you mess up, you gotta own it," she said.

Both also weighed in with concerns over the state's landmark health care law, mandating insurance for all residents, and with skepticism over Patrick's proposal to bring three casinos to the Bay State.

While admitting that she occasionally makes a trip to Foxwoods in Connecticut, Wilkerson slammed the casino proposal, saying many of the people who gamble are poor and have gambling addictions. She added that the bill doesn't provide jobs because applicants with criminal records would still get shut out. "The idea of putting a casino in Greater Boston is just insane," she said.

Chang-Diaz also voiced skepticism, but saluted the governor for submitting a possible solution for the $1.3 billion hole in the state budget. "I don't think casinos are the right way to do it," she said.

On health reform, Chang-Diaz praised Senate President Therese Murray's cost containment bill and pushed for more transparency in the health system, along with arming consumers with data on cost and quality. "Efficiency equals more care for more people," she said.

Wilkerson said employers will have to pay more, as health care costs skyrocket and eat into the state budget. "There are still kinks we're working out," she said.

The winner of the September primary will face William Theodore Leonard of the Socialist Workers Party in November's general election.