Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wilkerson Completes Self-Destruction

Legally bruised and morally bleeding, Sen. Dianne Wilkerson finished her final plunge today, with a shove from the FBI. There's little for even her faithful to do other than revile her and despair of their own naivete.

I come not to chasten the fallen former hope of Boston's black community. Let us bury her career and perhaps learn from this prolonged theater of misdoing.

Temporal Note: I had arrived in Lynn for Sen. John Kerry's speech when Wilkerson's arrest became public. I had lots of time and took a lunch rather than try to post quickly.

After numerous posts on this site (search above for Wilkerson if you must), I was ready to combine my findings with more research. It turns out that a very definitive piece that pivots on her is out there. In 2003, Commonwealth published the Michael Jonas piece Black power: Why are African-Americans still struggling to get ahead in Boston politics?

It covers:
  • The political manufacture of a minority Senate district.
  • The extreme hopes for the bright and ambitious Wilkerson.
  • The several high-profile black men and women who chose not to run for various high offices.
  • The role of various mayors and how the School Committee is chosen.
  • Wilkerson's first ignoble fall in a tax scandal.
Black, Latino and Asian constituents are nowhere near represented in the General Court, City Council or the mayoralty. Jonas described the compromises that led to a black Senate seat as well as the demographic and cultural limits on expanding representation.

We do have a smattering of minority brains on Beacon Hill and a somewhat fair Council. In total, this may not be as segregated as parts of Boston or the rest of the commonwealth, but it's pretty 19th Century.

Between scandals, Wilkerson had pledged to help increase members of color in the General Court. That seemed more bluster than action. Similarly, she had come to power by defeating ex-convict Bill Owens with the high-minded call of "We can do better. I know we can."

She was a week short of a thumping by a new reformer, Sonia Chang-Díaz. Now we'll surely never know how accurate my predictions of a big loss would have been. You would have to pretty much spit on democracy and decent government to use a sticker or write in the candidate caught on file and tape taking repeated bribes to taint her office and subvert the legislative process.

Instead, the Senate will still have a woman of color, but still only one. Yet how bitter that must be for Wilkerson supporters, even those who have been accusing Chang-Díaz of not being dark skinned enough to suit them. There, in the end, is only one person to point at for the loss of the black voice in the Senate.

We do have several black and Latino members of the House and there is a Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus. What there doesn't seem to be is any form of effective development and mentoring to increase representation.

Jonas notes in his article that potential legislators and other pols need first to be identified and then recruited. I'd hold that in the middle, even before getting an agreement to run, they would need existing or even past lawmakers to act as mentors and to sponsor them. There's no reason the legislators need to be of the same race or culture, particularly as there are a lot more white men and women available to help.

Someone is sure to do a definitive piece or maybe even a book on Wilkerson's promise, rise and repeated stumbles, staggers and falls. That process could well reveal that there were too many expectations and pressures on the then hungry, young standard bearer. On the other hand, the understory might be that she was arrogant and without a moral compass. Regardless, it would be useful to understand why things went wrong. Yet the word that strongly comes to mind is pathetic.

As to what needs to go right, that is much plainer. Eastern Massachusetts has numerous bright, accomplished and honorable minority adults. Exactly who is willing to steer them to public service and be their sponsors or find those sponsors is another matter entirely.

Wilkerson's wipe-out is surely a bitter disappointment to many. It need not impede the overdue development of other legislators of color. It may even be reasonable for each state lawmaker to groom one or two candidates for office. That's a long process and some would drop out before running, but students and young professionals should know that making laws and representing their constituents is an option, one that it is both desirable and possible.

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