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No place for race-baiting in Senate contest

In the early aftermath of last month's primary election, some supporters of State Senator Dianne Wilkerson made remarks that were racially charged and deeply troubling.

Reporter correspondent Gintautas Dumcius was in the room when the senator's supporters rallied in Grove Hall last Tuesday for what served as the launch of Wilkerson's bid to challenge Chang-Diaz in a sticker candidacy next month.

Dumcius's report included the following:

"Wilkerson's comments came after a number of supporters took to the podium to rally the crowd with stirring speeches and racially-charged remarks. Calling the primary a "skirmish," Rev. Miniard Culpepper thundered, "If they want a battle, they've got one coming."

He was followed by City Councillor Charles Turner, who said the Second Suffolk seat was "rooted in the politics of the black community."

"That seat that Dianne sits on was created by this community," Turner said.

Jean McGuire, executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, Inc. (METCO) compared the moving of several polling places with little notice in Wilkerson's strongest districts to alleged voter disenfranchisement in Florida and Ohio in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

"This is the first time in a long time we will not have a senator who is a person of color," McGuire said. Wilkerson is the Senate's only black member. Chang-Diaz, a former Jamaica Plain schoolteacher and State House aide, is of white, Latin and Asian descent. Her father was the United States' first Latin-American astronaut.

Boston's daily press made note of some of those remarks, but our correspondent approached McGuire and asked her to clarify her remarks about Chang-Diaz. In her reply, McGuire said, "There are white Hispanics and black Hispanics." She added: "She is not a person of color."

Now a case could be made that much of the comments made that night were rooted in disappointment over seeing their candidate go down to defeat. The doom and gloom that pervaded the room as this smart, articulate and feisty state senator was being rejected by a plurality of the primary election voters surely was a disappointment to those who know her good qualities. Even her most ardent backers will admit that Sen. Wilkerson has had her share of problems, most of them self-inflicted. But even her detractors acknowledge her great intellect and devotion to causes that affect her district.

But McGuire's remarks in particular clearly stepped over the line, and they should be called what they are: racially divisive. There really is no place in contemporary political discourse for such charges. McGuire essentially says that because Chang-Diaz is - in McGuire's view - a white person, she cannot adequately represent the interests of persons of color. Evidently, McGuire believes her candidate should have been re-elected for no other reason than the color of her skin. That sure sounds like racism.

The sad irony is that this skirmish plays out even as Barack Obama - a person of color - offers his candidacy to the nation. The Obama campaign is founded on the premise that the society is ready to put aside its racial differences and select him on the basis of his skills and qualifications. Jean McGuire's mean-spirited, even hateful derision of Wilkerson's opponent flies in the face of that concept, and worse, it could provide comfort to those who would decide not to support Obama for racial reasons.

It is our belief that when voters go to the polls, most often they make their decisions in their own self-interest. People vote for candidates who in their best judgment will make things better for themselves and their family. That is what appears to have taken place in Chang-Diaz's defeat of Senator Wilkerson, for surely there were persons of color who chose not to back the incumbent senator.

Now, Sen. Wilkerson apparently has chosen to mount a write-in campaign for the general election in November. Let us hope the race-based attacks are assigned to the scrap heap, and voters are asked to make their choice on qualifications alone.