Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Twists in a Close Race for State Senate

Along with asking for a recount, the two Democratic candidates in a close race for state senate in the Second Suffolk District are bracing for the possibility of yet another rematch.

At a meeting Tuesday night with supporters at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Grove Hall, Senator Dianne Wilkerson said, if the recount fails to give her the nomination, she is prepared to run as a Democratic sticker candidate in the final election November 4.

“There will be more people at the polls on November fourth than at any time in our nation’s history,” said Wilkerson. “And I’m afraid what happened here is a harbinger of what could happen to Barack Obama around the country.”

In the Democratic primary last week, Wilkerson finished behind second-time challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz by 228 votes. Even on election night, Wilkerson and her supporters said she missed out on votes in precincts she carried because some polling places had been relocated. Within the district, there were changes in polling places for ten precincts.

Wilkerson campaign spokesperson Jeff Ross said Monday there were also complaints about ballot scanners that failed to work and voter requests for provisional ballots that were turned down.

“The campaign” said Ross, “wanted to respond to voting irregularities and voter disenfranchisement and address the issues raised by the community.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Boston Election Dept. announced it would do a recount in four wards covering parts of the district in Roxbury, the South End, and Jamaica Plain. Recount petitions had been filed by both candidates.

The candidates also asked for a recount after the close race two years ago, when Wilkerson failed to get on the primary ballot and ran a sticker campaign. On election night in 2006, Wilkerson was ahead by only 141 votes. Both candidates picked up additional votes in the recount, which increased Wilkerson’s margin to 692 votes.

In this year’s primary election, Wilkerson came up short, despite support from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, along with endorsements from labor unions and the Latino political group, Oíste.

When she spoke to supporters on election night, Wilkerson also blamed the outcome on the “inordinate amount of money” contributed to the Chang-Díaz campaign by fundraiser Barbara Lee. Wilkerson said she was afraid it meant the district “was for sale.”

“I think the issue, the idea that one woman should have so much influence in what happens in this district,” she said, “it bothers me to no end.”

Since the election of 1974, the Second Suffolk District has been all but officially maintained for a black office-holder. After almost 16 years in office, and even in her post-election speech, Wilkerson was still trying to reconcile the district’s historic black identity with its current multi-racial population—encompassing Roxbury and part of Dorchester, along with the Back Bay, the South End, Bay Village, Chinatown, the Fenway, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain.

But the population represented by Wilkerson has also been changed by the redistricting after the last federal census in 2000. As a result of those changes, the district lost 16 predominantly black precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan. Added to the newly-drawn district were Ward 8 (Lower Roxbury and the South End), along with precincts in the Back Bay, South End, and Jamaica Plain. In 20 of the new precincts, whites were in the majority or at least were the largest racial group.

At the meeting Tuesday night in Grove Hall, Wilkerson supporters said her defeat would be a setback for black and Latino representation throughout the state.

The City Councilor for District 7 (Roxbury and Dorchester), Chuck Turner, said there had to be a seat in the senate that would be for someone “rooted in the politics of the black and Latin community.”

“We are in a battle,” said Reverend Miniard Culpepper, Pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist church in Roxbury. “If you think Dianne lost just because somebody thought it was a good idea to run, you’re wrong.”

Right after Wilkerson’s announcement, supporter Robert Marshall started calling for volunteers.

“This is bigger than Senator Wilkerson,” he said. “It’s about us stepping up to the plate.”

In a statement issued the same night, the Chang-Díaz campaign said it was confident she would come out ahead in the recount.

“In the primary election, we told voters that this year they didn't have to choose between leaders who would do good work on the issues they cared about and leaders who would always be accountable to those they represent – and the voters said yes,” said Chang-Díaz. “On November 4th, I believe the voters will say yes again.”

* * * * *

Sticker campaigns usually gather less support than a place on the ballot, but Marshall notes Wilkerson has already won as a sticker candidate. Though Wilkerson could very well benefit more than Chang-Díaz from the higher turnout in the November, two of her most prominent supporters—Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino—would have to choose between the candidate they backed in the primary and, barring a reversal in the recount, the nominee of the Democratic Party.

When she spoke Tuesday night, Wilkerson said if she did go ahead with a sticker campaign, she would oppose the party nominee as a Democrat.

“This ain’t Lieberman,” she said, referring to the US Senator from Connecticut who left the party and later endorsed the Republican nominee for President, John McCain.

“I’m not an Independent,” said Wilkerson. “I’m a Democrat.”

Some of Wilkerson’s supporters also expressed dismay over a racial divide in the primary vote. But one supporter acknowledged that many of the same voters in consistently progressive areas who went for Chang-Díaz had voted two years ago for Deval Patrick as Governor and would probably support Barack Obama for President.

In the longer term, the racial identity of the district could also shift with the population and new changes in boundaries. Given its current population, Boston’s adjoining First Suffolk state senate district also has the potential for electing candidates of color. Though the district still contains South Boston, it also includes Dorchester and part of Mattapan. According to the 2000 census, whites accounted for one-third of the district’s population, while blacks were at more than 40%--a number which has most likely increased.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vote for Change in Close Senate Race

When Dianne Wilkerson arrived at The Henhouse Wings and Waffles, her supporters had already heard she lost. Hugging them one after another, she made her way toward the side of the restaurant where a victorious US Senator John Kerry beamed overhead on a television screen.

As the crowd drew closer in a gathering quiet, someone shouted, “Turn off the television.”

It was time to speak.

But, before that happened, the state senator reached down to take off her black high-heels. Wearing a bright red dress-matching the color of her campaign signs, she then stepped up to begin. She was standing on a plastic milk crate that was covered with a piece of cardboard.

Rather than congratulate the apparent winner, Sonia Chang-Díaz, or even acknowledge that a close race had been lost, Wilkerson talked about what went wrong, including the votes she might have failed to get because polling places had been relocated. Within the district, polling places had been changed for ten precincts, most of them carried by Wilkerson.

“I think we lost two hundred at the David A. Ellis School,” she said, “people in wheelchairs that we just couldn’t transport.”

According to unofficial returns from Tuesday night, Wilkerson lost by 228 votes, despite support from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, along with endorsements from labor unions and the Latino political group, Oíste.

Also blamed for the defeat was the “inordinate amount of money” contributed to the Chang-Díaz campaign by fundraiser Barbara Lee. Wilkerson said she was afraid it meant the district “was for sale.”

“I think the issue, the idea that one woman should have so much influence in what happens in this district,” she said, “it bothers me to no end.”

Since the election of 1974, the Second Suffolk District had been all but officially maintained for a black office-holder. After almost 16 years in office, and even in her post-election speech, Wilkerson was still trying to reconcile the district’s black identity with its multi-racial population—encompassing Roxbury and part of Dorchester, along with the Back Bay, the South End, Bay Village, Chinatown, the Fenway, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain. On the one hand, Wilkerson took issue with a voter who criticized her for representing only Roxbury. On the other hand, there were the figures showing it was possible to become senator in the district without carrying the black vote.

“I think what this proves is that you could be a state senator without representing a good core of this community,” said Wilkerson, “and that makes me sick.”

* * * * *

After her victory party in Jamaica Plain at the Alchemist Restaurant, Sonia Chang-Díaz was mingling with supporters and occasionally stepping outside for a call on her cell phone. What used to be the more congested and smoky confines of Triple D’s and Buddy Hanrahan’s had been transformed. There were exposed brick walls and a high black ceiling with exposed rafters. Given all the space and hard surface overlaid with music, it was hard to hear talk even at close range, but supporters with anything to say were in a mood to cut through noise. And Chang-Díaz credited her victory to the mood of the voters.

“Voters have been telling us over and over again that they are frustrated and they want new leadership,” she said.

In her campaigning, Chang-Díaz tried to reinforce that feeling by drawing attention to the Wilkerson’s settlement over campaign finance violations six weeks earlier. Though Wilkerson called the violations “errors of accounting,” some went farther—accurately or not-- in their conclusions about how the money was used.

And, when asked two weeks earlier at a forum In Jamaica Plain what she would do to uphold the laws on campaign finance, Wilkerson responded with seven syllables: “Try my best to follow them.”

Chang-Díaz then said she would uphold the laws, not just try.

After the victory on Tuesday, Chang-Diaz supporters took pride in the campaign’s ability to identify and turn out voters, with little time wasted on trying to create buzz.

Chang-Díaz acknowledged role of contributions—from Barbara Lee, but also the small amounts from other supporters, along with volunteer work, some of it by grassroots activists at her celebration.

“I’m very happy to have Barbara’s support. She has been an advocate to progressive women leaders that we have been very fortunate to have in this state,” said Chang-Diaz. “None of the money is from lobbyists.”

* * * * *

The figures from Tuesday’s vote show Wilkerson winning the predominantly black precincts in Roxbury and part of Dorchester between Grove Hall and the Franklin Field area. She also carried Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8) and precincts with subsidized housing developments such as Bromley-Heath, Mission Park, Alice Heyward, and developments along the Southwest Corridor. Chang-Díaz carried precincts in the Back Bay, the South End and Bay Village, part of the Mission Hill area, and nearly every precinct in Jamaica Plain. That included the precinct with the highest number of voters, in the Jamaica Hills area.

The outcome invites the conclusion that turnout was higher in precincts carried by Chang-Díaz , but it might be more correct to say that Wilkerson could have used more help with voter registration. As for the percentage of registered voters who turned out for the election, the total for the Second Suffolk race was 17.3%. In the precincts carried by Chang-Díaz , the turnout was 16.5%. In the precincts carried by Wilkerson, it was 16.7%.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two Reasons to Vote in Boston Senate Race

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 in Jamaica Plain, at Boston English High School, Wilkerson even mentioned her own conflict with racial identity—at least 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 of the 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 September 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% 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,” she said, “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.”

In other words, 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 says: “Dianne Delivers ‘08”). And in her campaigning, Wilkerson has talked up everything about filing bills to help victims of predatory lending, to having a role in Governor Deval Patrick’s approval of money for a new skating rink in Jamaica Plain and infrastructure supporting new development in Jackson Square.

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, near Boston Medical Center. 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—but also 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, for the biotech jobs,” 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 Representative 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 had 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 that approach will attract votes by diminishing identity barriers (as seemed to be the case in her strong showing in the diverse and progressive precincts in Jamaica Plain). But, before voters can transcend identity, they have to be mobilized. And, if neither candidate for senate in the Second Suffolk District 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.

Note: a number of polling locations in Boston have been changed. See list of polling place changes and an up-to-date list of polling places for the September 16 primary has been issued by the Boston Election Dept.