Politics and Power Brokers
Preparing for a Presidential Run
Speaking to her supporters alternately in English and Spanish, Sonia Chang-Diaz kicked off her second bid to unseat long-time incumbent Sen. Diane Wilkerson for the Democratic nomination for the Second Suffolk District seat; a seat Chang-Diaz narrowly lost to Wilkerson in 2006.
Different in this rematch for Chang-Diaz, the 29-year-old former public school teacher and policy advocate, is the benefit of time and resources to organize and execute a campaign against the now eight-term incumbent Wilkerson. She’ll have the name recognition that comes with winning 44 percent of the primary vote (to Wilkerson’s 49 percent) despite not formally launching her 2006 challenge until less than four months before the primary election. And she will have perspective.
“We came so far two years ago,” Chang-Diaz told about 40 campaign staffers and volunteers at her kickoff rally at her Jamaica Plain headquarters. “I know that this year we can go all the way to the State House. Because one thing that became very clear to me as I spoke with the residents across this district is that if we could have knocked on every door and if we could have spread our message to every voter, we would have won that election because this district is ready for change. We are ready for change.”
What remains to be seen, and what may be decided in the mid-September Democratic primary, is just how Wilkerson’s previous transgressions – including ethics violations, an indictment for tax evasion and campaign finance violations – will offset her accomplishments in the eyes of voters during this election cycle. Was Chang-Diaz’s success as much a result of her campaigning as it was Wilkerson backlash?
For her part, Chang-Diaz said her campaign is about progressive issues like underfunded public schools, youth outreach to curb the at times brazen violence in the district, economic development, and rising health care and housing costs that are “unaffordable for working families.” She said she wants to reinstate public trust in the office, a veiled reminder of Wilkerson’s ethics record. Chang-Diaz said she would not shy away from reminding voters of Wilkerson’s past flaws, but would not build her campaign around them, either.
“We won’t focus on that any more or less than any of the other issues,” Chang-Diaz said about Wilkerson’s past, “but it is part of the package.” It may come down to that, though, as Chang-Diaz describes both herself and her opponent as “progressive Democrats” with “some shared viewpoints.” She does dismiss any personal rift with Wilkerson, calling their relationship “normal.”
Wilkerson did not respond to a request for comment on Chang-Diaz’s Campaign announcement.
Suffolk’s second district includes Chinatown, the South End, Roxbury, The Fenway, Jamaica Plain, and parts of the Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Dorchester, and Mattapan. In the last election, Chang-Diaz did well in JP, where she lives, and in Back Bay, but Wilkerson’s base in Roxbury supplied the support she needed to carry the vote.
To increase her outreach in the district this year, Chang-Diaz enlisted Deborah Shah as her campaign manager. Shah worked as an organizer on regional and national campaigns for the Democratic Party and is assembling volunteer groups – known as “the Delta Force for Change” – to relay Chang-Diaz’s message to voters throughout the district on a weekly basis. It will be a grassroots campaign, relying heavily on those volunteers to spread the message.
Many of the volunteers present on Sunday, some from as far away as Swampscott, said they admire Chang-Diaz’s ideas, youth and vitality. Others said they wanted to get involved in politics on a local level and are tired of the cynicism in electoral politics. Bryan Hirsch, 27, who lives in Jamaica Plain but grew up in California, volunteered for Chang-Diaz’s first bid and re-enlisted this year because he “believes” in her. He also said he was “really upset” to learn Wilkerson had not collected enough names at the time to put her name on the ballot in the 2006 primary. As a result of her signature shortage, Wilkerson was forced to wage a sticker campaign that year. Chang-Diaz also ran a sticker campaign, owing to her last-minute entry into the race.
Following the Sunday kickoff, many of the volunteers took to the streets to begin a door-knocking campaign for Chang-Diaz that will continue all the way to the Sept. 16 Democratic primary and, for Chang-Diaz, hopefully through to the November general election, where Socialist Worker’s Party candidate William Leonard will likely be on the ballot.
What is clear to Chang-Diaz is both candidates will have to move beyond their voting blocks from the previous election in order to get their message heard in their district’s economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
“Any candidate who is a serious candidate in this race is going to have to campaign across ethnic lines, across racial lines, across neighborhood lines,” Chang-Diaz said. “That’s what we did in 2006. That’s what we are going to do this year… speaking all the languages I can speak.”
By Ben Berzai
It started and ended with a handshake, but remained, as moderator and Democratic Ward 4 Co-Chair Elizabeth Corcoran-Hunt remarked, “collegial.” Perhaps too collegial.
The two Democratic contestants for the Second Suffolk Senate seat came to the Harriet Tubman House on a muggy Tuesday to discuss issues at the Democratic 4th Ward meeting. Eight-time incumbent Senator Dianne Wilkerson and second-time challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz spoke about issues for the first time in the same room since the Democratic Senatorial primary in 2006. Wilkerson edged Chang-Diaz by five percentage points in that election, then breezed past her Republican challenger to victory that November.
But this event was neither a debate in structure –candidates did not address each other, only answered questions from the moderator for the audience- nor was it a ‘debate’ on ideas. The candidates sat at an arm’s length from each other at the same table, both physically and philosophically. Whether answering questions about health care, crime, the Pine Street Inn’s proposed expansion on Upton St., or housing, these two candidate’s similarities greatly exceeded their differences.
For over an hour, the candidates mutually agreed with each other for the 40 onlookers curious enough at this stage to hear why they should vote for one over the other.
It never truly happened.
In fact, while Wilkerson answered a question about Massachusetts health care reform, saying that some of the rising costs must be paid by employers, Chang-Diaz nodded in agreement. In other instances, the roles were reversed and Wilkerson nodded at Chang-Diaz’s points. This pattern continued throughout the debate. More frequently than not, the candidates built their responses around their opponent’s answer to the same question, adding or subtracting their ideas, or refocusing the answer into more personal terms, but rarely differing on the gist of the ideas as a whole.
What is clear is this: Both candidates are self-professed “progressives.” Both assume the same roles they did in the 2006 primary –Wilkerson is still the long-time incumbent and Chang-Diaz remains the upstart, albeit more seasoned, challenger.
Both believe Barrack Obama will win the presidency this fall, and both identify closely with Gov. Duval Patrick, though both disagreed with his casino legislation, saying that while they disagree with the legislation for economic reasons, the morality of what having casinos does to poor people in this ‘diverse district” ought to be considered.
Chang-Diaz is “very skeptical” of casino financial projections, saying, “whenever the lottery performance falls short of the of the projections we’ve made for it, Massachusetts is put in the very unsavory position of having to choose between not having enough revenue for education and public transportation or encouraging people to gamble more -most likely poor people- to gamble more. That is not a choice we should invite ourselves further as a state.”
The casino bill was rejected by the State House representatives so it never reached the Senate, but could be resurrected in the next legislative session, after the upcoming elections this fall.
Both agree that the $1.6 billion state deficit needs to be made up, and neither is naïve about how that has to happen. Taxes.
When asked about economic stimuli plans, Wilkerson said she would like to give cities and towns the local option for a meals tax, lift the exemption to tax beer and wine at package stores and “selling to the people of Massachusetts the benefit and wisdom of embracing life science as a new economy for us.”
The Democratic primary is set for Sept. 16, and Democratic Ward 4 will make an endorsement on one candidate or the other by early-to-mid July.
So while interesting things were said about the upcoming primary, and a number of platitudes were reached, neither candidate separated themselves from the other, ideologically.
A few guarantees about your next State Senator can be made. The winner will be a woman, a minority, and they will be a progressive Democrat, and whose toughest race will be won against another progressive Democrat. In the Second Suffolk, the winner of this Democratic primary in September will smoothly sail to a victory this November.