Wilkerson fall vexes some

On September 22, less than a week after State Senator Dianne Wilkerson had lost the Democratic primary by 213 votes, dozens of supporters turned out for her at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Grove Hall.

They came, not to bury the senator, but to praise her.

Jessenia Castillo told how the senator used her own money to protect her from a threat of violence by making it possible for her to stay at a hotel.

Also giving thanks to the senator were two relatives of Milena Del Valle, who was killed in the collapse of a ceiling panel in a connector tunnel on the Big Dig.

The executive director of the Chinese Progressive Assn., Lydia Lowe, recalled the senator's help with voting rights in Chinatown.

The executive director of Ethos, Dale Mitchell, spoke of Wilkerson's support for gay marriage rights.

The pastor at Roxbury's Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Rev. Miniard Culpepper, remembered Wilkerson from the time when they were both law students. "Over the years, Dianne has been a special person," he said. "She stood for us."

Two nights later, at a take-out restaurant in Roxbury, according to the FBI, Wilkerson met up with an undercover investigator and took $10,000 in a manila folder - the last in a series of cash bribes adding up to $23,500. The money was allegedly for Wilkerson's influence in helping to secure a liquor license and development rights in Roxbury's Crosstown area. Making the charges harder to ignore was the video evidence that showed the money passing hands.

But six weeks after the meeting in Grove Hall, and one day before Wilkerson was expected to run again as a sticker candidate, longtime health and human service lobbyist Judy Meredith could still picture Dianne Wilkerson in a different way.

"She was always a champion for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled," said Meredith. "She was a champ."

Before losing this year's Democratic primary to second-time challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz, Wilkerson had a near-miss. In the previous election two years ago, after six elections without facing a strong challenge, she failed to get on the primary ballot, due to a shortage of valid signatures. Chang-Diaz ran against her in a sticker campaign. And, despite the higher turnout partially inspired by Deval Patrick's campaign, Wilkerson won the primary by only 692 votes.

Even before this year's primary, there was renewed attention to Wilkerson's ethical problems over the summer. By the time Wilkerson was trying to run her most recent sticker campaign, there were new reports of possible tax problems. And some constituencies were disappointed by Wilkerson's positions on Boston University's proposed level 4 biolab, Northeastern University's new dormitory near Ruggles Center, and state support for a stalled mega-project over the Mass. Turnpike. Wilkerson was also being criticized for a lack of effectiveness by advocates trying to stem the loss of subsidized rental housing.

But, until Wilkerson's arrest last week, even supporters who admitted having their differences were still backing her as the person with the most experience and the most familiarity with the district's largest population group, African-Americans. Wilkerson was the only African-American in the Massachusetts Senate, and she focused on several issues where racial differences emerged in sharp relief - from racial profiling in traffic stops to racial disparities in health, racial gaps in student performance, even racial patterns in subprime mortgage lending.

Given the vulnerability Wilkerson showed two years ago, should political activists have asked her to step aside in favor other candidates from the African-American community?

One of those activists from Roxbury, Louis Elisa, said that conversation had taken place.

"She wasn't ready to leave," said Elisa.

In the 1980s, when Elisa was head of the Boston NAACP, Wilkerson was doing legal work to end racial discrimination in access to public housing. Twenty years later, he says the Second Suffolk District has "a lot of progressive young people" who would like to be Wilkerson's successor.

"We knew that she had to move on," he said.

A former state representative from the South End and current member of the Green Rainbow Party, Mel King, says Wilkerson's positions on the biolab and the dormitory may have cost her enough votes to lose this year's election.

"What matters is that the people in the district decided there should be a change," said King. "It seems to me that's the story."

Unlike the territory in which the senator won her first term in 1992, the current district has a new set of boundaries and different racial composition. As a result of redistricting after the 2000 census, the Second Suffolk District lost some predominantly black precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan, while gaining some precincts where whites were the largest single population group - mostly in Jamaica Plain.

In the last two elections, most of the predominantly white precincts were carried by Chang-Diaz, while most of the black precincts were for Wilkerson, along with the main precinct in Chinatown. Some Wilkerson supporters had been drawing attention to the racial split in the voting, one of them even saying the election of Chang-Diaz would give the district a state Senator who was not a person of color.

After Wilkerson's arrest, some supporters have also argued there is a racial gap when it comes to punishing ethical transgressions by elected officials. And Elisa says the timing of the arrest little more than one week before the election, has led to "pain and anger" in the community.

"It's not that Senator Wilkerson should win or lose all the time," said Elisa. "It's that the process was manipulated."

The alleged bribery, along with the horse-trading between Wilkerson and other officials, has also been blamed on a political culture that's low on electoral challenges and high on opportunities for channeling public resources into personal gain - legally or not.

"She's a smart, savvy political operator," said Meredith. "And she's watched a lot of other white boys get away with the same thing and get nothing but a hand-slap, and she just lost her judgment."

According to the policy group, MassINC, when it comes to contested races for seats in the state legislature, Massachusetts ranks the lowest in the country. Due to the dominance of the Democratic Party, most challenges are made in a September primary, when voter turnout is usually below levels for the final election.

The executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, Pam Wilmot, argues that more competition usually means more accountability. "Political competition," she said, "does provide a check and balance by getting people out to talk to their constituents, so their constituents have a choice."

Wilmot says more transparency might have helped prevent the bribes that Wilkerson allegedly took for trying to secure approval of a liquor license at Crosstown Center. But Wilmot says corruption also feeds off power.

"In the very notion of power," she said, "is the potential to corrupt and centralize and secretize."

King describes some of that power as what constituents lose by giving more attention to a candidate's personality and less to their own need to push for an agenda.

"The best way to give up power is to believe you don't have any," he said.

And Wilmot argues against letting a political figure's notoriety distract from needs for systematic reform.

"A scandal like this feeds into the cynical perception that they're all the same," said Wilmot. "And they're not."

The charges against Wilkerson and the ongoing investigations centering on associates of House Speaker Sal DiMasi are also unfolding in the middle of a sharp economic downturn, when public outrage over the cost of government can be expected to run higher. At the same time, voters going to the polls on Tuesday were faced with a referendum about whether to abolish the state income tax.

But, with the emergence of the FBI's evidence and the end of Wilkerson's sticker campaign, Meredith turns her attention to what the senator's conduct says about her as a person.

"It's a series of self-destructive acts. It's almost as if she wanted to get caught," said Meredith.

"My heart is broken for her that she got herself into this mess," she said. "I worry about her mental health and her safety."