Sen. Chang-Diaz faces early tests on Beacon Hill

Weeks into the job, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is already playing defense.

The freshman lawmaker, like others who are facing their first year on Beacon Hill, is up against a billion-dollar budget crisis that is causing prized programs to get pared down or eliminated entirely.

The issues facing legislators are steadily mounting, including a reorganization of the state's transportation bureaucracy, ethics reform and with the departure of House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, casinos are back on the front burner.

Chang-Diaz, in her new State House office on the fourth floor, told the Reporter she has "high hopes and high standards" for the two-year legislative session.

"Those are tempered, of course, with the realities of the budget picture we're facing for the coming year. It is the case on a lot of my priorities, and the priorities of the district, we're going to be in defense mode rather than offensive mode," she said. "But I still have high expectations about what this office is going to do."

Of the 11 bills that she has filed at the start of the session and the six she's co-sponsoring, "There aren't a lot of big ticket items here," she said. "In some ways, it's great because it forces legislators and advocates and community members to push the boundaries of creativity to find solutions to big ticket items that didn't get as much attention in previous years."

As an example, Chang-Diaz pointed to a bill she is co-sponsoring on reforming the state's Criminal Offender Record Information. Proponents say the information can often be confusing to employers, leading to some to be rejected from jobs.

CORI reform is a "low-cost initiative" that can help individuals in the Second Suffolk District, she said.

Her foreclosure legislation, which involves "legal changes so it doesn't cost a lot of money," is another example. The bills are similar to, if not the same as legislation filed by Chang-Diaz's predecessor, Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. Wilkerson lost the Democratic primary and withdrew from the race after federal prosecutors charged her with corruption.

The foreclosure bills mandate court approval of foreclosures; enable to tenants to stay and pay rent on their homes when a lender, such as a bank, takes back the property through foreclosure; and establish a formal procedure for homeowners facing foreclosure.

Another Wilkerson bill that Chang-Diaz is re-filing includes bilingual ballots in all federal state, and Boston primary and general elections. Secretary of State William Galvin says the ballots are already bilingual, but Asian-American activists say the ballots need to be transliterated into characters. Galvin maintains the characters will lead to inaccurate translations and potential electoral lawsuits.

A former State House aide and budget analyst at the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Chang-Diaz said the economic climate is the worst she has seen.

"How do you decide whether you're going to cut education or healthcare or youth violence prevention?" she said. "It's an impossible decision. At the end of the day, we will find solutions. It's going to be painful, truly painful, but I think we're going to get through it."

Along with poor budget conditions, ethics reform is another issue that will be up for debate. Gov. Deval Patrick has filed a bill that tightens ethics rules, giving more enforcement powers to the state attorney general and secretary of state.

"I think there's an appetite to take it up early in the session. We really have to be out in front in rebuilding trust with the public," Chang-Diaz said. "I ran for office because I really believe by large margins most people in this building are hardworking folks who are here to do the right thing. I don't think the building is rotten and needs an overhaul in ethics. But we can do better and there are problems in the system that we can fix."

She remains focused on the bills she has filed, and called filing her first piece of legislation a "thrilling experience."

She has also received guidance from veteran legislators. "Almost everyone echoes the importance of relationship building and the importance of staying focused on their districts and who put you here," she said. "Everybody has their own story to tell, 'here's some stupid thing I did when I was a freshman' or some unique perspectives from their background or on policy issues that they care about it. It's really been neat. I know that sounds nerdy."

Members of the Dorchester delegation have equally warm words for the new senator, a Jamaica Plain Democrat.

"She just got here," said Rep. Marie St. Fleur, who was vice chair during the last session of the House Ways and Means Committee. "I think, so far, she's educating herself."

Added Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, "I think she's doing a good job of reaching out to people."

Community activists who strongly supported Wilkerson in the divisive primary also said the senator has been "very approachable."

Lydia Lowe, executive director for the Chinese Progressive Association, said Chang-Diaz has been working closely with the community on transliteration.

"We've been very happy that she's taken a leadership role on this issue," Lowe said.