Friday, September 05, 2008

Ward 11 & 19 Legislators Gently Spar

Yesterday at Boston English, the candidates' forum for Boston Dem Wards 11 and 19 paired the contested Six Suffolk House candidates and the Second Suffolk Senate ones. I went there for Sen. Dianne Wilkerson v. Sonia Chang-Díaz.

Before I get into that, I have to say a pleasant surprise was how much Rep. Willie Mae Allen has blossomed in the past two years, her first term in office. I posted on her two years ago, as everybody's aunt, the very sincere, somewhat insecure and extremely politically inexperienced neophyte.

Look at her today (below left). She is 70-ish and last time seemed it in every sense. Last night, Willie Mae was confident and feeling very competent. Even what appears to be a terrific wig for her takes 15 years off her appearance, matching her attitude.

If I had one insight last night it was that a retired person wanting to do good for people and feel good about herself could do a lot worse than seeking public office.

Alas for her challenger, Kathy Gabriel (right), Willie Mae is in the legislative groove. Before the forum started I spoke with Kathy. She a native Trinidadian, does lots of work helping the immigrant community get its members into mainstream America. She paints with a very broad brush, leaving trails of the big ideas of what has to be done.

She spoke of preventing foreclosures for people caught up in predatory-lenders' mortgages. She spoke of education for non-English speakers. She had lots of concerns and I don't doubt her sincerity for a moment.

Unfortunately before the forum and on stage, she totally lacked specifics. She spoke very believably of working hard for the voters. I have no doubt she would. She turned several elegant phrases, speaking of "children getting shot" and "the deathly silence coming from the State House" about crime and murder in poor neighborhoods.

Her attitude was that Willie Mae was not concerned and not acting on the fundamental issues. Unfortunately for her, Willie also had the power of incumbency as well. She repeatedly claimed to bring home the bacon, she made great use of "we" passed this or that. She did not show Wilkerson's gigantic ego of "I" made it happen and brought in the bucks, but the contrast between the doer and promiser was plain.

Willie Mae is no one's academic. She's not likely to be the brightest person in the room. She doesn't have to be. She has two key attributes of a successful legislator:
  1. She has an open door, listens to constituents, provides services, and uses her office as much as she can to help her people, not herself (sounds like James Michael Curley, eh?).
  2. She is a leftist, concerned with ordinary people, and one who works with other legislators in both houses to pass good laws.
Kathy ended up dribbling into abstracts during the Q&A. For example, she used the cliché of having to have family values, discipline of children, and religious grounding to make crime prevention work. She kept branching off into things the legislature couldn't control. Those may be important and idealistic, but those weren't what people were asking about in what would you do as a state rep.

In the end, Willie May iterated that "I'm a a proven leader and I'm doing the job." Ward 11 agreed and endorsed her by a large margin.

The Contenders

As a disclaimer, be aware:
  • I endorsed Sonia Chang-Díaz two years ago when she ran against Dianne Wilkerson. I am sure I shall again. Like the challenger, I feel and think Wilkerson has had too many chances to correct her financial and legal problems. We should not have to choose between a politician with good voting positions and one who is law abiding and honest.
  • I co-authored a column that appeared in Bay Windows that said as much.
  • I led the effort at the Left Ahead! podcast site to have Wilkerson on as a guest to make her case. We had Chang-Díaz on previously. As recently as last month, Wilkerson's staff set up a date and time, which they canceled the day before. They have promised to reschedule, but have not.
  • You can search this blog for some of my coverage of Wilkerson, including my own pious positions.
The end of the forum evening was the Senate-contest interplay. Dianne and Sonia are not girlfriends, nor likely to be. The two muttered and not shouted undercurrents of their time were:
  1. Dianne being insulted that anyone would dare criticize her.
  2. Sonia being aghast that amorality is accepted.
Those tensions flickered out at several points, but fairly subtly.

I acknowledge that we in this city and state do love our rascals. We have a long history of that, including Curley, Honey Fitz and many others. A difference here seems to be that while they all broke laws and used money shadily, they almost always did it for the benefit of others. Of course, the end result was than people remembered their generosity and returned them or theirs to office.

Today and last evening, a key question before alert voters is how much is too much? How many fines, house-arrest sentences and plea bargains are too many?

One surprising answer came from the normally moralistic editorial page of this week's Bay State Banner. In their endorsement of Wilkerson, the essence of the question arose. They wrote, "When one considers the good that Wilkerson does, the admittedly embarrassing mistakes she has made seem petty by comparison." Feathering one's nest illegally, kiting checks, stiffing condo members, and not filing years of taxes water down from crimes to "embarrassing mistakes."

Indeed, that is the question. This is both a morality and IQ test for voters.

Main Bout

On her website, in her literature and publicly, Sonia simply and not at all stridently makes the moral argument. For her part, Dianne has never once apologized. Instead, like Dick Nixon, she falls into the passive, with comments like "mistakes were made." In her recent plea bargain, she said distantly there were "accounting errors," referring to her campaign-finance violations of writing huge checks to herself without justification or receipts.

We might have expected M80s last evening, but got sparklers.

Were I Sonia, I'd not be so nice. In that case, it's likely that I would never as gotten as close two years ago or be in the running now. Yet, I was quite surprised yesterday to see how gentle she was on many points. For example:
  • Dianne is a consummate politician in the sense of taking credit for everything she can. She doesn't sponsor or write much, but she knows how to jump on a bandwagon, and then claims she made everything good involved happen.
  • She tends to wait until a huge appropriations bill from the House arrives, throwing in one or two pork measures for her district, in proportion to the bill's size, so they pass. She then claims victory as though she had fought for the items on principal instead of opportunism.
  • Most damning is that many of the progressive measures she allegedly favors founder, for years. She is quick to blame that on the House. The Senate under her "leadership" is ready to pass these.
Were I Sonia, I'd ask why she can't get state reps to work with her and why she tends to fatten up the budget with earmarks, but seldom leads. I want my senator to work well enough with members of both houses to make things happen. After 16 year, she should have that down pat.

In the main, during the openings and questions, Dianne did the expected and reasonable. As her campaign website title reads, she delivers. That is the currency of incumbency. She could claim effectiveness, revenue for her district, and voting for progressive positions.

For her part, Sonia could easily point to the many things still broken 16 years on — public schools, crime particularly youth violence, and foreclosures/unaffordable housing.

The questions were largely how are they going to fix these things. Sonia was strong on putting more money to some problems, like education for smaller class sizes, particularly in urban schools. Oddly, Dianne said the legislature had spent plenty on schools, that more money wouldn't help.

Were I Sonia, who was a public school teacher, I'd point out that Boston and the few other big cities in the state need more money because they stage the poor and immigrants, who require greater resources for fair footing. In fact on education, Sonia knows her stuff and Dianne blew smoke. Specifically, put Wellesley-sized classes in Boston school and see the huge improvements.

CORI reform was another bifurcation. Both believe that people need a chance to get a job after paying their nominal debt to society. Yet, this legislative agendum has stalled for many years. Oddly enough again, Dianne said she wouldn't promote it until it had stronger language for youth offenders. All suffer meanwhile. Were I Sonia, I'd make much of such poor judgment.

Both candidates got off topic in the Q&A. Part of that was the 60 to 90-second limits on answers to complex questions. Sonia ended up being caught too many times suggesting additional expenditures without the time to explain how to fund them. Dianne ended up shoehorning related or vaguely related bills she could claim association with as proof she was on top of it.

At several points, Dianne flared, commenting on Sonia's (my challenger's) audacity at criticizing her. In fact, she had an alternative fix to replacing her. She honestly said with a straight face, "What we desperately need in this district is for you to elect more people to support me in what I do."

In the concluding remarks, Dianne led by telling us that if we wanted "leadership," "credibility" (she really said that), and "taking risks," "I'm your candidate. This election is about leadership."

She added that the earmarks — "that's the role" — were a big part of leadership. Indeed, that returns to the fundamental test for the voters.

Yes, it's swell to get the pork. The other legislators, or many of them, do that too. Dianne has delivered lots of pork from big spending bills. That is one way of working the laws. She's also often voted what I consider the correct way. Then, there are the trappings of crime and punishment.

For her part, Sonia ended up high minded. She said, "Change is possible on all these issues." She called for discipline, creativity and public service that inspired trust.

She spoke of people who she had canvassed in her campaigns who had stopped voting. They say corrupt politicians and pork-barrel legislation and gave up. One man told her, "That's just the way politics is."

She'd like to stop that, but even with the frequent applause she received from those interested enough to attend last evening, I wonder how many want the change.

At the end of the evening, Ward 19 gave Willie Mae a resounding endorsement. Neither Dianne nor Sonia received the 2/3, so there was no endorsement.

In a Saturday morning follow-up, Dianne's website lists Ward 11 Dems as her second Ward endorsement. I'm still waiting for details from the Committee head.

Also on Saturday morning, Ward 19 Committee head Karen Payne reported that among the contested Dem spots, they did endorse Willie Mae over Kathy, passed on the Councillors, and did not make an endorsement between Sonia and Dianne. She said the latter poll was "very close."

And on Monday, I connected with Ward 11. They did not endorse in the House race because they had no precincts in play. However, they did go for Wilkerson. They also made an endorsement in the Council race, for Kelly Timilty.

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Cubiclegirl said...

Fantastic post... thanks for attending the forum and for reporting on it.

I live in Willie Mae's district and am a big supporter of her. Her stance on the marriage equality issue was a breath of fresh air for our neighborhood following the years we spent under Shirley Owens Hicks.

There were two comments from the challenger during the debates that I thought were particularly telling on her conservative views that I'll share:

"If there isn't a man and a woman in every family's house there will be chaos in the streets."

(Which seemed to me to be a coded reference to marriage equality) and...

on the question of how she would address the high number of foreclosures in the district she said...

"I would work with banks to make sure that people could extend their mortgage payments so they could have 40 or 50 year mortgages so their payments would be cheaper."

Um. Wow. Sounds like the Rent-a-Center approach to home ownership. Not exactly what the district needs.

massmarrier said...

Thanks cg. Those are good insights.

I confess that I went through pages of notes and decided not to run on at the fingers. Interestingly enough, all four of the candidates often did not answer the questions asked. Moreover, neither Willie Mae nor even more so Kathy had clear programs for the problems posed. I would like to hear much more substantive debate with time for details for the two senatorial candidates.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I read your blog. Good reporting/commentary!

Anonymous said...

Ditto - followed a link from universal hub and am glad to have found you!