Monday, August 04, 2008

Dianne - Dance with the One You Brung?

Electoral inertia, otherwise known as the power of incumbency, is massive. I've been watching the local Second Suffolk Senate race with this ever in mind.

In an unimportant/important district race, 15-year incumbent Sen. Dianne Wilkerson's re-election race says much about the low level of Massachusetts politics in general and the conundrum progressives frequently noodle in particular. Basically, she seems personally (and particularly financially) amoral. Yet, she votes correctly.

What's a pinko to do?

The many squeaks from the self-interested are loud together. Wilkerson's long-delayed campaign site lists endorsements from:

U.S. Senator John Kerry
Governor Deval Patrick
Senate President Therese Murray
Mayor Thomas M. Menino
The Honorable Maura Hennigan (Suffolk Country Clerk Magistrate)
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi
Boston City Councilors
Charles Yancey
John Tobin
Chuck Turner
Mike Ross
John Connolly
Steve Murphy
Sam Yoon
State Representatives
Willie May Allen
Gloria Fox
Marty Walz
Byron Rushing
Marty Walsh
Elizabeth Malia
Linda Dorcena Forry
Mass Alliance
1199 SEIU Mass (local 509)
Boston Teachers Union
NARAL - ProChoice Massachusetts
Planned Parenthood
National Association of Social Workers
Ward 5
Important too is that my buddies over at Bay Windows have endorsed and actively support her. They are quick to run any news on her online. That is any news except her admission last week that she copped a plea and admitted guilt for a series of campaign-finance violations.

Lackaday, that's not her only financial and legal blemish. Consider among the worst:
  • Just this week, she copped a deal and plea to avoid criminal charges and maybe even expulsion for the latest financial baggage. She paid over $10,000 in fines and had to forgo over $30,000 in reimbursement for shady uses of campaign funds.
  • Two years ago, she didn't bother to collect the trivial 300 nomination signatures, had to run a sticker campaign and almost got beaten by newbie Sonia Chang-Diaz. Sloppy, lazy and arrogant only begin to cover that one.
  • Two years ago, she stiffed her condo association for over $13,000 and didn't pay monthly fees for many months. Her unit faced foreclosure.
  • In 1997, she pleaded guilty to not filing or paying taxes from 1991 through 1994. Besides paying up, she was under house arrest 30 days per a federal judge. She admitted not reporting $27,000 in donations and could not account for $18,00 in reimbursements directly to her. She was sentenced to house arrest. For twice breaking curfew, she ended up at a halfway house for 30 days.
  • Sub rosa, there's a question about whether she perjured herself in her nephew's manslaughter trial.
To a cold eye, the obvious question is why would voters return such an ethically challenged pol to office? Moreover, those left-leaning organizations and media must have some obligation and devotion to political standards, no?

Over at the Phoenix, David Bernstein seems to have written Wilkerson's political obit. He followed Chang-Diaz around, heard the time-for-a-change chant and figures she's in.

Disclaimer: I endorsed Chang-Diaz last time and surely shall again. I'm a sincere man from the land of the maple trees. I don't believe it's ethics or pork.

What makes it hard is that Wilkerson has delivered two ways consistently. First, she brings home the bacon — grants of tens or hundreds of thousands for special interests, neighborhoods, and specific groups in a very wide range of her diverse district. Traditionally, that is the number one measurement of state legislators.

Second, she is a true pinko by her voting record. Bless her heart, as we southerners say. She is a stalwart voter for GLBT issues. She is on the proper side of housing and jobs for the poor. She may not introduce or lead on important bills, but when the votes come down, she's there with a tally and maybe a speech. Most recently, as one example, she never drove the repeal of the dreadful set of 1913 marriage laws, despite her pretense to the contrary, but she spoke for repeal. The real orator as usual was Rep. Byron Rushing, but we all knew of Wilkerson's sentiments. She had his back.

Then as a long-term GLBT supporter, she was front and just off center at each announcement and the governor's signing ceremony. She's smart enough at least to take credit for things she's tangentially related to in the legislature.

Among the things she's lacking is legislative innovation and leading by forming coalitions to drive big bills and concepts. She is never avant garde and is a few steps behind the risky positions. Not everyone can or should try to blaze trails and she doesn't. Again though, once a progressive ball is in play, she's a good supporting team member.

Chang-Diaz has to prove the forward impossible. That is, that she can bring home goodies from the pork barrel and that she can sway other senators and perhaps representatives or administration officials on issues her constituents want. Wilkerson stresses what she has delivered, or more, what she intends to do (good intentions and all that).

Wilkerson's site and indeed her entire campaign rely on a list of the tiny, little and big buckets of money she delivered for specific constituent groups. Those are extraordinarily shallow but amazingly broad. She can go to a specific group and say she delivered. For one of many examples, she can tell the Caribbean citizens and immigrants that she was again key in ensuring a $50,000 grant for the annual festival...again.

Perhaps she should lift some more from her old campaign site, which is still up for the moment. In addition to earmarks (bacon) she was working on last term, she includes her one big co-sponsorship. She led on a major anti-gang program that got funding. Everything else is a team-player mention or something, to use her most popular phrase, she is working on.

Many of these pieces of bacon are in the works. That doesn't stop her from claiming association. She's "working on" a $350,000 grant from UMASS's Trotter Institute for the black community or $100,000 for the Kwong Kow Chinese School. Many others cite her as the driver or at least a supporter for money for specific projects.

Broader and more visibly, she is out there on leftist positions, at least orally. She has a well-earned reputation for voting for and advancing goals of the poor, the GLBT groups, and people of color. Her votes are right on, issue after issue, term after term.

There's the conundrum. Do you turn her out because she can't be bothered to pay taxes as the rest of us must? Do you figure she's so distracted by her self-made legal messes that she can't do her elected job? Do you pick her challenger because both are extraordinarily similar on issues big and small — you can get the right votes and help from someone honest, responsible and ethical?

Otherwise, consider what you imperil:
  • Wilkerson or her people know what pet projects the wildly and widely diverse district wants. How quickly can Chang-Diaz come up to speed and can she start with the template of the current grants and simply build on them?
  • Would rejecting Wilkerson mean collegial losses? Here, Wilkerson is pretty weak. She doesn't have a history of bringing co-sponsors and fellow travelers in on her interests. She's more a follower, albeit it a leftist one. Chang-Diaz seems more personable and may have an edge here in consensus building.
  • What seniority would you lose? Wilkerson only chairs one committee, the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight — fundamentally contract bidding and lobbyists. She co-chairs the Joint Committee on Financial Services (banks and insurance companies, not the irony-potential taxes area). She sits on Ways and Means (the big money committee), but is largely relegated to lower-level committees. There's not much at risk here and a new senator might do much better on seniority and importance of committees. She has not in eight terms.
The short of it is that Wilkerson is a known quantity. She has big pluses in positions and pork. She has huge minuses in her distracting ethical and fincial failings again and again and again. In a Newtonian, whole-picture view, she's voted progressively but hasn't introduced or driven key legislation. She follows and votes for the proper (to me) issues.

Podcast disclaimer: We at Left Ahead! have requested a podcast interview from Wilkerson several times, as recently as a week ago. She has not responded. We've offered to visit a site of her choice or have her call in as our guests usually do. Also, two years ago, I endorsed Chang-Diaz over Wilkerson on this blog. This time, we have produced a podcast with Chang-Diaz.

For the most immediate and latest scandal, including admitting financing guilt, Wilkerson told everyone, "I consider the matter now closed." That pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain attitude is, of course, outrageous. This election would well hinge on that Frank Baum comment from the Wizard of Oz:
Dorothy: Oh, you're a very bad man!
The Wizard: Oh, no, my dear, I... I'm a very good man - I'm just a very bad Wizard.
In her personal dealings, Wilkerson has often been outrageous. Yet that hasn't yet hurt her re-electability or general popularity among her least until this admission of guilt. While bluenose sorts repeatedly point out how she violates both laws and common morality, that stone of inertia barely budges. She wasn't paying taxes while we were. She was bouncing checks while we weren't. She claimed thousands of expenses here and there with no receipts or other justifications while the rest of us played by the rules.

This election is the real one for ethics. If voters know of her shortcomings and admitted guilt, and then send her back to the Senate, the cliché of politics being local will hold. If two tines of her legislative fork — bringing in cash for her neighborhoods and voting the way most constituents like — are straight, the corroded and twisted ethical tine won't be relevant.

Next up: Comparing the candidates' websites — content, usability, and more.

Tags: , , , ,


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention and link, but I want to briefly correct a couple of your inferences: I did not endorse any candidate, and I did not predict a Chang-Diaz victory.

I wrote that one could easily conclude, from selective door-knocking responses, that Wilkerson is in big trouble -- but also that Wilkerson has not yet begun making her pitch to the district. (In fact, on the Phoenix's Talking Politics blog I have previously predicted a Wilkerson victory.)

David S. Bernstein
Boston Phoenix

massmarrier said...

I'll update the post to remove the endorsement.

On the other hand, you piece definitely is promising for Chang-Diaz. If the people at the doors are ready to switch progressives, Sonia has a real shot.

massmarrier said...

I see that the UniversalHub citation for your piece had a disclaimer about an endorsement. I conflated that with your piece. Sloppy on my part....

John Hosty said...

This is what I love about reading your blog, you do your homework. Thanks for posting this, it was enlightening as always.

Anonymous said...

I have heard this argument, that Dianne Wilkerson brings home the bacon, especially to black organizations, and this seems to be a major basis for her support. But she brings a lot more pork to far-from-needy developers and corporations, and her rationale – to create jobs for her unemployed constituents – doesn’t make sense when you look at the actual projects and corporations she’s trying to help with taxpayer money.

The relatively small bits of cash she brings to the impoverished black community may be a helpful “share-the-wealth" for a few groups and individuals. But look at her fifteen-year term: Has she really uplifted the black community as a whole? Has she boosted long-term political and economic self-sufficiency with fundamental education, employment, environmental justice and land-use reforms? One specific lost opportunity: she co-chaired the state Commission to Eliminate Racial & Ethnic Healthcare Disparities; yet after its year of work on developing specific recommendations, she allowed months to go by before the report was released, and is foot-dragging on implementation follow-through.

Bacon-bringing is more about politics than about statesmanship – it’s mutual back-scratching by legislators who dissipate our taxes on vote- and contribution-buying give-aways without regard to long-term effects. It corrupts both the giver and the taker. And it keeps poor people resigned to a cynical and self-defeating strategy of collaborating in letting the big boondoggles roll through so they can grab for scraps, rather than focusing them on the urgent need to mobilize for big-picture needs and structural changes in the way resources are distributed.

We need principled leadership, to stand up against the waste and inequity, and give citizens of all colors enough confidence in our government to bring them back into civic life: discuss, vote, willingly pay taxes, and hold all their elected officials accountable for the future of the community.

Sometimes, the known devil isn't the better choice. Sonia Chang-Diaz (thanks for that great podcast!) makes me optimistic that she would take us in a good new direction without leaving any group behind.