February 27, 2008
The main players in the wildest election of 2006, both running sticker campaigns and coming within 692 votes of each other, are back. Sonia Chang-Diaz announced last week she would again take on incumbent Senator Dianne Wilkerson for the second Suffolk seat. Local filmmaker Robert Patton-Spruill, who directed "Squeeze," a 1997 movie about youth gangs in Fields Corner, may also be in the mix.
"The motives that prompted me to run in 2006 are still there for me," said Chang-Diaz on Monday. "Voters are looking for someone who represents their values on the issues and also who upholds their standards for ethics and responsibility."
In the 2006 contest, Chang-Diaz repeatedly referred to Wilkerson's past, which includes a conviction for non-payment of taxes in 1997, a 30-day visit to a halfway house in 1998 for breaking the rules of her house arrest, and a 2001 fine from the State Ethics Commission for advocating that minority-owned banks gain control of bank branches set to be divested in a Fleet Bank and BankBoston merger, without revealing a business relationship she had with the only such bank in town at the time, Boston Bank of Commerce.
Pressed to differentiate herself from Wilkerson on issues other than ethics, Chang-Diaz mentioned clean elections, health care and development, elaborating only on the latter. She referenced the controversial Columbus Center air rights project planned for a spot over Interstate 90 in the Back Bay.
"There are lots of economic needs in the district, but we have to look at what's the most effective way to stimulate job growth," said Chang-Diaz. "I don't believe public subsidies of private development is the best way to do that."
Wilkerson's office responded to interview requests with only a prepared statement from the senator.
"I welcome the opportunity to engage in a conversation on what's best for the second Suffolk district. I'm confident that my work will speak for itself."
Many do respect Wilkerson's work, which includes petitions supporting a long list of left-wing liberal causes.
"Most Latino organizations will tell you that she has been very supportive for many years," said Giovanni Negretti, executive director of Oiste?, a state wide Latino political organization.
With the exit of Senator Jarrett Barrios to take a top job at Blue Cross Blue Shield last year, the Chang-Diaz-Wilkerson match-up will pit the only African-American member of the state Senate against what could become the only Latino member of the Senate. The all people of color race seems to open rifts between older political activists of color and their younger counterparts on overall strategy.
"If we're talking about greater representation for communities of color, it's a better opportunity for her to open up some areas where there needs to be some strong Latino representation," said Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, a Roxbury-based political consultant and long-time Wilkerson supporter.
Negretti, on the other hand, said it's always a good thing to see young people of color running for office. "It makes elections lively, which is a good thing," she said.
The 2006 contest did have its moments. Wilkerson failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot for the primary in September, inspiring Chang-Diaz to run with just three-and-a-half months until Election Day. Both candidates ran sticker campaigns, and Chang-Diaz fell just 692 votes short of victory after a recount widened the margin.
This year, filmmaker Robert Patton-Spruill said he might enter the fray after a dream he had inspired him to do something deep, but as of yet, he's undecided.
"We'll see what happens," he said in a phone interview this week. "Worst-case scenario it's a wake up call for our elected officials that there's a younger generation that expects to get things done."
Patton-Spruill is known for a movie about youth violence he released in 1997 called "Squeeze." The film featured teens from the Dorchester Youth Collaborative where he worked at the time. More recently he directed a documentary about 90s rap phenomenon Public Enemy called "Welcome to the Terrordome," after an album of the same title.
"It's about rap when it was about positive things," he said.
Patton-Spruill is interested in improving the higher education institutions in the district, MassArt and Roxbury Community College, and making insurance rates fairer for city dwellers. If he decides not to run, he said he might use his film talents to give his fellow challenger a boost.
Chang-Diaz is optimistic about her chances in a more traditional race.
"It won't be a sticker campaign, that's a huge logistical difference," said Chang-Diaz." In 2006, we got 44 percent of the vote in three-and-a-half months with half the budget she had. This time we'll be starting from that base with more time to talk to voters."
In all of 2005, Wilkerson raised around $128,000 from her supporters, but 2007 brought in only $61,407. Much of those funds were raised from lobbyists, attorneys and developers, including $1,000 from the Columbus Center's developer Winn Companies, and some $8,000 from Cornerstone Corporation. Cornerstone is the developer and property management company hired by the Salvation Army to build the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center on Dudley Street and was recently embroiled in a management-tenant dispute at RoxSE homes, an affordable housing development in Lower Roxbury.
Wilkerson's cash on hand stands at just over $27,000.
Chang-Diaz raised over $26,000 in 2007, bringing her cash on hand up to around $29,000. Many of her donors stated their occupations as teacher, lawyer or a wide variety of other professions. Barbara Lee, a Cambridge philanthropist and women's political action advocate, chipped in $500. Chang-Diaz once worked for Lee.