Did Kargmans’s loan to Wilkerson figure in what Kane characterizes as her passivity in pushing legislation for affordable housing? That is a difficult question to answer, since neither Wilkerson nor the Kargmans would talk. In political circles, Wilkerson is considered a friend to the construction and real-estate industries. On controversial projects, such as the Boston University biolab or Columbus Center, she has taken pro-development positions that have put her at odds with some activists in her district.
Few are more critical of Wilkerson’s involvement in development issues than Kerrick Johnson, a community activist who leads a Lower Roxbury residents group and a minority construction-worker alliance, the Roxbury Builders’ Guild. “She’s been at this for a while,” says Johnson, “trying to insinuate herself as overseer of real-estate development in her district.”
Johnson has sought to extract more neighborhood benefits — in particular, construction jobs for minority residents — from developers during the city-review process, only, he claims, to have Wilkerson and what Johnson calls “her cronies” present themselves as true representatives of the Lower Roxbury community.
Johnson points to Northeastern University’s 22-story dorm tower, now nearing completion on the Roxbury side of the campus. Wealthier neighborhoods rejected far smaller dorm proposals out of hand, but the project was embraced by Wilkerson and Linda Evans, one of two Roxbury representatives on the city task force overseeing the school’s expansion plans. (Evans is also the property manager of Roxse Homes, a subsidized-housing complex in Lower Roxbury where Wilkerson keeps an office, apparently rent-free, at least according to her most recent campaign finance reports; Evans, who is a Wilkerson ally, is at the center of a bitter dispute with tenants.) In an unusual move, construction began long before residents had a chance to press their demands on Northeastern.
In criticizing Wilkerson’s role as representative for Boston’s minority neighborhoods, Johnson says, “The symbolism of [her] blackness is nowhere near as important as what someone does on the ground, and nothing is more on the ground than real estate.”
A taxing situation
Before Wilkerson assumed her State Senate seat in 1993, she lived through poverty in Springfield, put herself through law school as a single mother, and became the legal advisor for the Boston chapter of the NAACP. In a political culture not known for diversity, she has proudly donned the mantle of one of the state’s most powerful black leaders — perhaps no more conspicuously than as the organizer of an annual conference called 21st Century Black Massachusetts.
Wilkerson has organized the conference, which bills itself as a “forum for the gathering of Black residents from across the Commonwealth,” at the Hynes Convention Center from 2002 through 2007. In a press release ahead of the 2003 event, Wilkerson said, “If Blacks in our state are going to achieve a quality of life that results in increased economic security, better health, greater educational attainment, and a strong political voice, then we’re going to have to create alliances beyond city borders to do it.”
Over the years, the event has drawn national leaders, including Reverend Jesse Jackson in 2004, and Governor Deval Patrick, who addressed the forum in 2005 during his gubernatorial campaign.