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.”

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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.