Will race enter the race?

Dianne Wilkerson and Sonia Chang-Díaz don’t talk about the racial split in their Senate showdown, but it’s likely to make its mark
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 30, 2008

ROUND TWO: State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (left) and challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz (right) are again fighting to represent the Second Suffolk district. Their platforms are almost identical — will race be a deciding factor?

Two years ago, when Dianne Wilkerson inexplicably failed to submit the necessary signatures to get her name on the Democratic primary ballot for re-election as state senator, a 28-year-old upstart seized the opportunity. With both candidates running as write-ins, Sonia Chang-Díaz ultimately came within 700 votes of ousting Wilkerson from the Boston district she has represented since 1993.

Chang-Díaz is trying again this year, and your view of her chances depends largely on which candidate’s 2006 post-election spin you believe.

Some observers say that contest was close only because Wilkerson was then at her lowest ebb of popularity: the ballot-access flub seemed to punctuate a substantial history of allegations, oversights, and improprieties. But if voters re-elected her then, this pro-Wilkerson thinking goes, they will surely do so by a wider margin two scandal-free years later, against the same opponent.

Others argue that, despite the result, a substantial majority of voters rejected Wilkerson at the voting booth in 2006 — that she survived only because Chang-Díaz, an unknown, last-minute write-in challenger, was unable to get her name and stickers to enough of the electorate on Election Day. Chang-Díaz would have won easily, according to this interpretation, had she been able to reach just a small percentage of the 12,000-plus people who showed up at the polls to vote in the gubernatorial primary yet cast no vote for State Senate. If so, then in 2008, with both candidates’ names on the ballot, the anti-Wilkerson majority should carry the day.

A spokesperson for the Wilkerson campaign tells the Phoenix that its data supports the first assumption, and a Wilkerson re-election. A source with the Chang-Díaz campaign, however, says its polling conforms with the latter theory, and is corroborated by plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Voters are entering election season ready to replace Wilkerson, says Chang-Díaz’s camp. That could easily change once Wilkerson starts publicly making the case about what she has done with the two years they granted her last time around.

Perhaps more important, the careful, by-the-numbers analyses obscure an obvious racial dynamic: in ’06, black voters in the district went overwhelmingly for Wilkerson (who is herself black), while white voters resoundingly rejected her.

So, strategically, this time around Wilkerson will try to win over white voters, and Chang-Díaz will attempt to make inroads among blacks. Unless the dynamic has shifted dramatically in two years, though — and there is little reason to think it has — this election could still ultimately fall along color lines.

Following Chang-Díaz as she canvasses in Jamaica Plain and the Fort Hill neighborhood of Roxbury, it’s easy to start believing that Wilkerson is winding down her final days in office. “Anyone running against Dianne Wilkerson is all right by me,” one school teacher told Chang-Díaz. Then a city worker: “I just can’t pull a lever for [Wilkerson].” A black mother: “I’m not a big fan of your opponent — some people get into office and lose sight of why they are there.” A middle-aged woman: “You’ve got my vote . . . I just want some change, something other than publicity all the time that’s negative.”

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