Two reasons to vote in Second Suffolk race
September 11, 2008

By Chris Lovett
Special to the Reporter

Ever since the election of Bill Owens in 1974, the state senator representing the Second Suffolk District has been an African American. Thirty-four years later, the district's incumbent, Dianne Wilkerson, remains the one and only African-American in the Massachusetts Senate.

And, if that puts a spotlight on racial identity, Wilkerson has rechanneled the glare over the past 16 years to put racial divides in sharper relief - whether in housing discrimination, predatory lending, the achievement gap in public schools, health disparities, or traffic stops by police.

During a candidate forum September 4 at Jamaica Plain's, Boston English High School, Wilkerson even mentioned her own conflict with racial identity - with some African-American church leaders - resulting from her support for same-sex marriage rights. Her rationale was grounded in the civil rights movement, but the cheers were from what Wilkerson called a "Boston" audience - neither exclusively black, Latino, white, LGBTQ, or even progressive. Though the senate district includes most of Boston's African-American population - in Roxbury and parts of Dorchester - it also includes areas dominated by whites, Latinos and Asians - including the Back Bay, Fenway, South End, Chinatown, and Jamaica Plain.

Two years ago, most areas outside the black community were carried in a tightly contested primary by Wilkerson's challenger, Sonia Chang-Díaz. Mounting her second challenge in the Democratic primary on Sept. 16, Chang-Díaz takes progressive positions. But this race between two progressives does have differences.

Take public education. Chang-Díaz talks in race-neutral terms about trying to get new revenue for reducing class sizes, or higher minimum wages so parents would have more time to be involved in their children's education. At the forum, Wilkerson showed little enthusiasm for higher spending, but called for recruiting a "culturally diverse teaching population."

"You go to our Department of Education," said Wilkerson, "you don't see blacks and Latinos at a higher level to be involved in the process of figuring out what to do with the black and Latino students."

Wilkerson also drew attention to racial disparities in students placed in special education.

"I think we also have to deal with the fact that we have a special ed program that in fact has become the de facto population of black and Latino males, where we put the kids that other people can't handle, and that my definition of 'special' is that very few people have it," said Wilkerson. "If 75 percent of the black and Latino males are in special ed, there's nothing special about it."

If the comment sounded like the politics of resentment - some people versus other people - it also wasn't very far from concerns of leaders in educational policy. Wilkerson went on to explain her attempt to set up a legislative commission on the status of black males, and she suggested a possible need for schools or classes where boys and girls are taught separately.

Before starting her second campaign, Chang-Díaz worked as Director of Outreach and Development at the Mass. Budget & Policy Center. She also previously worked as a teacher in public schools. In comments at the forum, she focused on the difficulty of teaching in Boston high schools, with an average class size, by her estimate, of 31 students.

"You cannot deliver the kind of individualized attention that every student needs with that kind of class size," she said.

"I think, at $2200 per student, it's hard to make the case that a lot of it is about money," Wilkerson responded. "Anybody who says we're going to fix this with more money, is dreaming."

Wilkerson also argued against the current amount of spending on incarceration as a way to reduce violence. She called for revisiting the state's mandatory sentencing for certain offenses in school zones - which cover most of the city. And she disagreed with support by Chang-Díaz for limiting legal gun purchases to one per month.

Wilkerson's reluctance in recent years to embrace across-the-board spending increases for improving schools and public transportation might be construed as a sign of her lack of clout. The problem with clout could also reflect the entrenched divide between the interests of Boston and at least the suburbs, if not quite all the rest of the state. But, with a trail of media reports over the years about her troubles with taxes, condo fees, nomination signatures, and most recently with reporting and record-keeping in campaign finances, there are some grounds for concluding the lack of clout is at least partially due to Wilkerson's individual shortcomings.

At the forum, Chang-Díaz stopped short of making that argument explicitly, though she has faulted Wilkerson with a failure to be open with her constituents about which interests support her campaign, and how their money is being used. And that, according to Chang-Díaz, diminishes clout for all progressives.

"It harms the progressive agenda when we reinforce people's cynicism by asking them to choose between good votes on the issues and good ethics and accountability," said Chang-Díaz. "It pushes people away from voting and away from participation in our political system."

While Chang-Díaz is trying to convince voters that Wilkerson's troubles are costing them clout and what clout is supposed to deliver. That's precisely what Wilkerson is trying to refute in her campaign website (the heading reads: "Dianne Delivers '08"). And in her campaigning, Wilkerson has talked up everything from filing bills to help victims of predatory lending, to having a role in Gov. Deval Patrick's approval of money for a new skating rink in Jamaica Plain.

But, when it comes to projects in the district, the two candidates also have their disagreements. One is about Columbus Center, the stalled megaproject over the Mass. Turnpike on the border of the South End and Back Bay. Chang-Díaz opposes giving the project additional state subsidy.

The candidates also disagree about another stalled project, the Level 4 biolab that Boston University has been trying to build in the South End. Chang-Díaz is opposed to the project, while Wilkerson has been joining with other local office-holders trying to increase regulatory hurdles for the lab - keeping a door open to community benefits, such as training and jobs.

"There are many states in the nation that we are competing with for the biotech industry" said Chang-Díaz, "but there's not a single other Level 4 biotech-bioresearch lab that is sited in a densely-populated area."

Despite describing herself as an ally of the lab's opponents, including state Rep. Gloria Fox, Wilkerson also hailed it as the "leading edge" of biotech research.

"The reality is, if we're smart as a community, we want to make sure that all of our sides are covered," said Wilkerson. "My position is if we lose on this, I want to have a conversation about what that means in our community. If we win, there's no lab, no harm found, and we go on our merry way."

When Chang-Díaz made her first challenge two years ago, Wilkerson failed to gather enough valid signatures to appear on ballot in the primary. This year, there was an abundance of signatures, and the overall increase in the number votes by people of color in Boston over the past decade belies the notion that they're tuning out candidates.

Throughout the entire forum Chang-Díaz made practically no mention of her Latina and Asian background. It could be the approach that will attract votes by diminishing identity barriers. But, before voters can transcend identity, they have to be mobilized. And, if neither candidate for senate in the Second Suffolk can do that entirely on her own merits, then the two of them can certainly energize voters through one thing most legislative races in Massachusetts lack - solid competition.

 

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