A divisive message
By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / September 26, 2008
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When Senator Dianne Wilkerson and her supporters held their community meeting at Prince Hall Grand Lodge Tuesday night, the message to emerge could not have been clearer: This is our seat, and you have to make sure we keep it. There wasn't any doubt who was meant by "we," and the definition excludes quite a bit of the Second Suffolk District.
The audience of about 350 was almost all black and Latino, mirroring the results of the primary election. Wilkerson, of course, lost to challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz, pending the result of a recount. If the result does not change she will proceed as a write-in, or sticker candidate.
"This is not for the faint of heart," she said. "But if you're ready, I'm ready."
Wilkerson has been criticized for deciding not to accept the verdict of the primary voters, as though running as a write-in is an underhanded approach to maintaining one's seat. I think voters can make up their own minds how much importance they want to attach to the Democratic primary.
More troubling, though, is the casual acceptance of a campaign that has split so neatly along racial lines. Rather than appealing for unity, Wilkerson has opted for a message that splits blacks and Latinos from everyone else.
Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, Wilkerson's longtime consultant, contends that Wilkerson has no choice but to appeal to her core voters. "I think in her heart she is disappointed that it has broken down along racial lines," Ferriabough-Bolling said. "She has worked hard to reach out. But she is bolstered by the strong support of people in her community."
Any sticker candidate has to be considered an underdog, and Wilkerson is no exception. Having already lost her party's primary is only one of her problems. Raising money, never her strength, will be another.
And the institutional support she enjoyed in the primary is melting.
Governor Deval Patrick has made it clear that he will not work against the party's nominee. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, through a spokeswoman, said yesterday his organization is committed to other races, namely the presidential election and the campaign against Question 1, a ballot initiative to repeal the state income tax.
Wilkerson beat Chang-Díaz two years ago as a sticker candidate, but neither appeared on the ballot in that race. This is different. That isn't to say Wilkerson couldn't win, but the difficulties should not be underestimated.
This race has become a window into the tortured politics of people of color in Boston, in which METCO executive director Jean McGuire can say with a straight face that people of color will be unrepresented in the State House if Wilkerson loses, as if Chang-Díaz somehow doesn't count. How is she not a person of color?
Wilkerson makes a point of saying, rightly, that she does not own the seat. But she is, in fact, treating it as something that has been stolen from her. When her advisers rail about polling places being moved with inadequate notice, the idea being planted is that the power structure doesn't want Roxbury to vote. Never mind that the Election Department is the province of the mayor, who supported Wilkerson.
In this kind of battle, it's the emotions that matter.
Politicians always claim that they are running, or keep running, out of an outpouring of public support. There is no question that Wilkerson's supporters want her to hang on. But the idea that only a black person can represent the district is becoming a harder sell as the district, and the city, change.
Boston isn't just black and white anymore, and neither is its politics.
The idea of a primary is to unite behind a nominee, but this has served only to divide.
In the cold world of seeking power, unity sometimes gets reduced to a slogan. Winning is the only objective, by any means necessary.
Political diversity is supposed to be about more than this.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.