After state Senator Dianne Wilkerson’s bizarre failure, earlier this year, to collect enough signatures to get on September’s Democratic primary ballot, an obvious question loomed: did the senator still want her job?
GALVIN is probably doing the right thing by not giving Bonifaz (above) a chance.
Apparently, the answer was yes. Wilkerson’s signature slip-up was an embarrassment and a huge strategic blunder — she’ll have to win a three-way write-in race to survive September’s primary — but it also functioned as a much-needed wake-up call. And now that she’s faced with a real electoral fight rather than a mere coronation, the seven-term incumbent seems intent on doing everything in her power to keep her Second Suffolk Senate seat.
The most striking example of Wilkerson’s newfound focus? An allusion, at her July 20 campaign kickoff, to the serial gaffes (unpaid taxes, unpaid parking tickets, allegations of campaign-finance violations) that have dogged her career. In the past, the senator hasn’t been overly penitent when discussing these missteps — witness a recent Boston magazine profile, in which Wilkerson attributed her trials to ill will and excessive scrutiny. But Wilkerson’s campaign launch included a substantial measure of contrition: “To all of you, I say that I am sorry for any action of mine that has led you to question my judgment, the respect I have for the residents of the Second Suffolk District, or the respect I have for the position in which I have been fortunate to serve.”
Given the context, the sincerity of this apology is debatable — but it could convince some hesitant Wilkerson backers to give her one more chance come September. What’s more, Wilkerson has been calling in her political chits in earnest. During the ongoing gay-marriage battle, for example, the senator staunchly supported full civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples, a stance that brought enmity from some conservative black ministers and gratitude from gays and lesbians. Now Boston’s potent gay political infrastructure has a chance to return the favor — and it seems determined to do so, even though Wilkerson’s two challengers, Democrat Sonia Chang-Díaz and Republican Samiyah Diaz, are also gay-marriage supporters. (Case in point: Mark Solomon, the campaign director for MassEquality, blurbs Wilkerson’s gay bona fides on her campaign brochure, made an appearance at the aforementioned campaign kickoff, and helped organize an August 2 gay-focused fundraiser at the South End’s Club Café.
“Dianne’s been incredible on this issue,” explains Bay Windows editor (and former Phoenix news editor) Susan Ryan-Vollmar. “You just have to look at her performance at the 2004 constitutional convention. She gave an emotional speech from the floor of the State House, talking about racial discrimination and how you can’t draw artificial lines between racial discrimination and sexual-orientation discrimination. For MassEquality not to support her would have been odd.”
That group is just one of Wilkerson’s high-profile allies. For example, State Senate president Robert Travaglini hosted a May fundraiser for the senator at Joe Tecce’s, the storied North End restaurant, and offers encomiums on her brochure. Giovanna Negretti — a former Wilkerson staffer who runs ¿Oiste?, the state’s Latino political organization — also heads up the newly organized Latinos por Dianne Wilkerson. And while Wilkerson and Boston mayor Tom Menino have had some icy spells over the years, those in the know say their relationship is currently good. This reading was bolstered by Wilkerson’s hiring of Jerome Smith — Menino’s former liaison to the gay-and-lesbian community — as her campaign manager; Menino’s scheduled appearance at the Club Café event seems to confirm it. So some mayoral help should be in the offing as well.
But will all these high-profile alliances be enough? “The thing with Dianne right now is, at the institutional level she remains strong,” one Democratic insider says. “But I don’t think she has a lot of depth among the voters, and you need that in a sticker campaign.” This assessment jibes with the official line coming from Sonia Chang-Díaz, Wilkerson’s Democratic opponent and greatest threat. (No one expects Samiyah Diaz, Wilkerson’s oddly unprepared Republican challenger, to be much of a factor.) “The sense that we are getting at voters’ doors is that there is a lot of frustration with the current leadership out there,” say Chang- Díaz spokesperson Melissa Threadgill. “Voters in this district are ready for a change. Our job is to reach these voters and convince them that not only is it time for a change, but that Sonia Chang-Díaz is the candidate to make this change.”
Who's zooming who?
Incumbency doesn’t just give politicians the ability to call in timely favors from well-connected friends. It also lets them dictate the terms of engagement with challengers who want their jobs. And unless the challenger can force the issue somehow, à la Ned Lamont in Connecticut, the incumbent is generally free to ignore his or her competition.