Friday, September 19, 2008

Dealing More Race Cards

Sonia has extra work to do, even before she takes a chair up on Beacon Street. State Senate primary winner, and thus certain general-election choice, Sonia Chang-Díaz will need to put in a lot more face time in Roxbury.

She'll be campaigning for the Nov. 4th vote. Socialist Worker candidate William T. Leonard has next to no shot. Nonetheless, it's a great opportunity for Sonia to continue her conversations and introductions where Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was princess for the past 16 years.

How many times in political stories do we find ourselves thinking what should or shouldn't be so. I fall back on that great Lenny Bruce statement, "Reality is what is. What should be is a dirty lie."

What is at the moment in Boston is a lot of confusion and grieving. In predominately black wards and precincts, reality is setting in that there'll be no black senator. For the moment, we can set aside how absurd it is that there is only one. The other side of that truth is that Wilkerson's seat was seen by many as the black one. There is a real sense of ownership.

Wilkerson has long been confident to the point of being full of herself. A couple of weeks ago at the Wards 11 and 19 forum, she even said, "What we desperately need in this district is for you to elect more people to support me in what I do." She doesn't need any self-esteem training.

As it became clear on primary night that she was being edged out, she told her supporters, "This proves you can become a representative of this district without representing its core, and that makes me feel sick." Such plain racism is as divisive as it is illogical.

As a Latina, Chang-Díaz is not black enough to suit Wilkerson and may not initially present enough racial and cultural identity for some of the voters who have long supported Wilkerson. Yet, it's certainly as absurd to say that Chang-Díaz can't understand or achieve the goals of black voters than it would have been to say that Wilkerson couldn't do that for her many non-black constituents.

The question came up two days ago at the NNN show where I joined Wilkerson friend and fan, political strategist Joyce Ferriabough. Host Chris Lovett asked whether
Chang-Díaz' victory would further polarize the district's Wilkerson supporters. I figured that it would short term, but that as the worried constituents found Sonia was in sync with them, they'd relax. Meanwhile, she has some visiting and listening to do.

(Caution: The link is to my self-absorbed musings. If you are truly in need of something to do, you can catch a clip of it here.)

Reality is what is. What should be is a dirty lie.

Back to Bruce's observation, whether they're black, from Irish or Italian stock, Asian-American or Latino, voters shouldn't think that only someone who looks like them can think like them and work to solve their problems. Shouldn't...

In that ham-fisted article on Wilkerson's loss, Bay State Banner reporter Yawu Miller included a lot of race-based editorializing, including:

Chang-Diaz, who was born to a Latino father, seemed to focus more narrowly on a base of support in predominantly white precincts in Jamaica Plain, Back Bay and the South End.

Chang-Diaz’s victory brought an end to Wilkerson’s 15-year career in the Senate. It will be the first time in more than 25 years that a candidate of color has not prevailed in the Second Suffolk District.

Although Chang-Diaz claims white and Latino ancestry, Wilkerson’s black and Latino supporters seemed to view her loss as a setback to candidates of color — a theme Wilkerson echoed in the concession speech she delivered late Tuesday.

That would come as quite a surprise to Sonia to find that suddenly she was no longer of color. The article is certainly accurate in noting that Wilkerson drew the blacker-than-thou distinction. It was not only in her quasi-concession (she may yet do something dumb like a write-in campaign) speech.

At NNN, Ferriabough said several times that she had heard (as in hearsay) that some Chang-Díaz campaign workers played dirty pool. Specifically, she claimed that they claimed that Wilkerson was a convicted criminal, had not paid her taxes, and a list of insults. That each of her examples was accurate didn't seem to affect the argument, nor did her admission that she had only heard this from other Wilkerson supporters who had heard it from others.

Meanwhile, it seems okay to some that Wilkerson was comfortable playing race politics throughout the campaign. The idea that constituents won't have vigorous and attentive representation unless the Second Suffolk Senator is black is crazy talk.

In full answer to Lovett's question, we need to consider that Wilkerson has done her best to create divisions in the district. Had she won, I have no doubt that she would do nothing to heal those divides. For 16 years, division has been to her advantage.

Another dishonest campaign strategy has been to claim that Chang-Díaz has not made her positions known and has not been in the district's precincts, particularly the predominately black ones. At NNN, Ferriabough made the unsupported and unsupportable claim repeatedly that Chang-Díaz was "a blank slate." In reality, she has widely publicized and described both her fully fleshed-out platform and her background as teacher, legislative and and so forth. Wilkerson's camp kept pushing the idea that voters don't know anything about her.

Likewise, in the Banner endorsement of Wilkerson, there was, "Two years ago, she faced a challenger who came close to scoring an upset victory, but since that time her opponent has essentially disappeared. She only emerges when it’s time to ask for the public’s vote. " In reality, leading up to the 2006 vote and in the two years since, Chang-Díaz has been ubiquitous in the district. She in effect campaigned for the office for three years. Claims that she parachuted in for the current race are at best uninformed.

Unfortunately, the Wilkerson camp continues to live in an odd world. They apparently figured that the almost invincible power of incumbency to ensure re-election would hold, that endorsements from most of the commonwealth's top elected officials would wow voters, and that the huge campaign organization would deliver the voters like in the old ward-healer days. They were almost right.

It is a bit pathetic now to hear only blaming. Unfortunately, Wilkerson herself has the hallmark of failure to accept personal responsibility. Likewise, her apologists read from the identical script after the loss. Oh, if only polling places had stayed in the same location. Oh, if only the other side hadn't said anything about Wilkerson's misdeeds. Oh this...oh that.

Yet in the end, the worst is continuing to try to divide constituents and make them fearful through racial politics. Boston has had centuries of racial divides. It doesn't need retooled ones now. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Chang-Díaz cannot do at least as good a job at listening to, understanding and attacking the big issues that affect Wilkerson's strongest supporters.

I contend that had Wilkerson both cleaned up her act and apologized for her violations of laws and regulations, she would have won re-election despite her scandals. Her repeated unwillingness to show that kind of honor and honesty was surely worth much more than the 228-vote margin of victory.

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