This is the year to beat Dianne Wilkerson. And in theory, Samiyah Diaz is the sort of candidate who could actually do it.
Granted, Diaz is a Republican running in a heavily Democratic state-senate district. (The Second Suffolk includes Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Chinatown, Back Bay, the South End, and parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Beacon Hill.) But consider the other ways she matches up with Wilkerson, a seven-term incumbent who has weathered more than her share of missteps. Wilkerson is the only African-American in the Senate. Diaz would be the body’s only African-American (her mother is black, her father Hispanic) and its only Muslim. Wilkerson is a staunch gay-marriage supporter; Diaz promises that, if elected, she’ll work to repeal a state law that prohibits out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts. Like Wilkerson before her, Diaz is a single mom. Like Wilkerson, she’s attractive and photogenic. But Diaz has youth on her side: she’s 28 years old, while Wilkerson is 51. And unlike Wilkerson, Diaz is baggage free.
Right now, though, the idea of Diaz’s candidacy is far more appealing than the reality. Last week — after Wilkerson’s bizarre failure to get the 300 signatures necessary for a spot on the Democratic-primary ballot forced her to run a sticker campaign to advance to the general election — Diaz held a press conference at the Omni Parker House downtown. She announced that she, too, would be running in the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate — an unorthodox move that could bring Wilkerson’s career to a truly embarrassing close. (If Diaz gets more write-in votes than Wilkerson, she’ll face herself in the general election.)
It was a perfect opportunity for Diaz to show skeptics that she’s legit. And she botched it. Diaz looked nervous throughout her brief speech; she faltered repeatedly and seemed strangely unprepared. (Answering a question from the South End News, she promised to weigh in on the BU-biolab and the Columbus Center development projects, but not until she could “talk to more people in the district and get their feedback.”) After Diaz’s handlers cut the Q&A short and whisked away the candidate, a sense of baffled disappointment filled the room: that’s Samiyah Diaz?
Here’s a charitable explanation for Diaz’s flat performance: she assumed she’d be running the longest of long-shot campaigns, and never thought that the race might actually prove to be — you know — winnable. “If I were her, I’d be frightened too,” says one State House insider. “All of a sudden, she went from being nobody to being somebody.”
Fair enough. Even so, Diaz’s nervousness suggests she’s out of her depth against Wilkerson — who, whatever her flaws, is one tough character. And Diaz’s reticence, with its strange blend of meekness and obstinacy, makes you wonder if she’s actually in charge of her own campaign.