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.”

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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%.