State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s primary opponent this week ramped up criticism of the first-term incumbent, accusing her of not giving enough credit to her predecessor on legislation.
Attorney Hassan Williams, a Roxbury Democrat running for the Second Suffolk Senate seat, said bills on funding for summer jobs, preventing foreclosure, and reforming the state’s criminal offender record information (CORI) system were filed by former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. “Give credit to the person who actually did it,” he said at a Tuesday night forum in Hibernian Hall, veering away from an answer on a separate topic.
The move caused the forum’s moderator, Sarah-Ann Shaw, a former television reporter and now a community activist, to interject and note he wasn’t answering the question.
Williams pressed on, saying later in his closing statement that the district has gone 18 months “without leadership.” He circled back to the charge of not giving Wilkerson enough credit on CORI reform: “In law school, we called it plagiarism.”
Chang-Diaz hit back, saying after the forum: “I’ve always been clear about what my role in CORI reform has been.” She added: “I think it’s a visibly false charge.” She also noted that Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, was an author of the CORI reform bill that passed the Legislature in July and that the governor signed this month. She and other senators worked collaboratively on the effort to get the bill, as well as others, to the governor’s desk for his signature, Chang-Diaz said.
The Jamaica Plain Democrat said that several of the bills she pushed in her first term were re-files of Wilkerson’s bills, adding that she and Wilkerson shared views on a number of issues. “I think it’s the right thing to do, to pick up the ball,” she said.
Chang-Diaz won a racially-charged Democratic primary in September 2008 against Wilkerson by 228 votes. Weeks later, Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat who had held the seat since 1993, was arrested on federal corruption charges and later resigned from the seat. She pleaded guilty to several of the charges in June and is awaiting sentencing.
The Second Suffolk District includes Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury, as well as Jamaica Plain, Back Bay, the South End, Beacon Hill, and Chinatown.
At the forum, the two candidates also took questions on federal and state immigration laws.
Chang-Diaz said state and federal laws are already being enforced in order to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining public funds, and that Republicans were spreading misinformation saying otherwise.
Williams said he was in favor of legalizing all the immigrants who are presently in the U.S. and then focusing on protecting the country’s borders from violent ones.
The forum was sponsored by the nonpartisan voting rights group MassVOTE. Another forum, at Prince Hall, is scheduled for Thursday at 6.p.m.
An earlier forum, held last Thursday at the Twelfth Baptist Church and sponsored in collaboration with Rox Vote, was moderated by Kevin Tarpley of the Ward 12 Democratic Committee. There the candidates answered questions from debate organizers and selected members of the audience concerning housing, public safety, criminal record reform, transportation, and education.
Chang-Diaz thanked Williams for running against her, saying that the state needs more challengers to step up against incumbent officeholders. She pointed to her work on recent reforms to the way the state manages criminal records, house foreclosures, and the renovation of the Melnea Cass Recreation Center, in addition to her success in advocating for $1 million for youth summer jobs for local residents. She noted that work remains in saving local libraries from closure, staving off cuts to “chronically underfunded” social services. and making the district safe from violent crime.
Homing in on message of change, Williams listed job growth as a primary goal, saying that trade schools built in Roxbury could provide training for residents to work in the bio-science sector. Williams recalled how he was a Boston Public School student during the busing crisis of the 1970s and how he saw change in the city during that era due to a judge’s desegregation order and the election of the district’s first black senator.
“We don’t need lip service, we don’t need rhetoric, we need change,” Williams said. “From hearing from the people you find out what needs to be done.”
Asked about how they would prevent increases in MBTA fares, Chang-Diaz responded by saying that the debt-laden transit authority needs constant attention from lawmakers and leaders that will “hold the MBTA’s feet to the fire” to maintain service in the district.
“I think the MBTA should be held accountable for treating this neighborhood very disrespectfully,” Williams said, adding that Dudley Station, one of the busiest stations in the system, should look more like South Station instead of “a bus stop.”
When talk turned to the criminal records reform law, Williams said that it was “a good first step.” Williams called for further legislation to expunge non-violent juvenile criminal records and to lessen minimum sentencing mandates for first time offenders.
Chang-Diaz said that the CORI reform bill’s impact would be hard to measure, but that the effect will be greater over time. She added that as recidivism decreases, crime rates will drop and taxpayers will save money in decreased prison system costs.
Both candidates have backgrounds in working in Boston’s public schools, and both said they were in favor of protecting student access to English as a Second Language education and in-state tuition to state colleges for children of immigrants.
At the Rox Vote forum, the candidates hit a rare point of contention when Williams suggested that he would learn the state budget process quickly and would root out waste while protecting successful programs.
“Politicians are a dime a dozen that will tell you that you can just cut the waste,” Chang-Diaz said, challenging Williams to identify waste in the state’s budget. “It is not true when people tell you that they can solve it all by finding waste,” she said.
Williams responded by saying that he could find savings by paring back redundant programs.
The Democratic primary is scheduled for Sept. 14. With no Republican candidate, whoever wins the Democratic nomination has a clear path to victory in the November general election.