Ex-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson’s leaving office (“Wilkerson leaves a questionable legacy,” Nov. 27, 2008) was not only long overdue. It should serve as a strong signal that not enough has been done to ensure fair legislative representation.
As a disclaimer, there’s no secret where I have stood on Wilkerson, even before the recent charges. There’s a trail of posts on the Marry in Massachusetts and Left Ahead! blogs, a brief spot with Joyce Ferriabough on NNN, and an opinion piece in Bay Windows before the primary.
However, beyond any legal or moral issues or judgments, we need to ask and act.
Setting up a “reservation-style” district in 1992 for a senator of color was a reasonable first step. It seems though folks on the Hill thought, “Our work is done.” Redistricting for the House and Boston City Council reinforced that.
On the House side, there are several solid state representatives of color, though not enough. In the Senate, the lone seat is a single point of failure, as they say in engineering and business.
Wilkerson could have walked in front of a trolley, or lost to a Latina or other minority politician, or to a white one. However the sole African American Senator went away, the disappointment and ill ease by many are real.
Even considering the uneven distribution of various non-white voters in the Commonwealth, they are still nowhere near fairly represented, particularly in the Senate. It is accurate but glib to say that Wellesley or similar areas are not likely to elect a legislator of color. Moreover, if they did, that would almost certainly not be someone who understands the concerns of urban voters of color.
Changing the situation certainly requires the obvious but difficult:
• More candidates of color, which in turn requires support from community groups, political parties and incumbents.
• Mentoring by existing legislators. Yes, it’s extra work, but identifying and developing future leaders has always been part of the system. There’s no reason some white pols can’t do their part.
Behind the scenes, regular re-evaluation of demographics and on-the-street contact can forecast openings for pols of color. More people running, being willing to risk losing, is essential.
Even with an R after his name, Ralph Martin makes a wonderful, electable candidate. It is understandable that such remarkable and successful people hesitate to risk their existing success for the risks of running. Yet, we need them to do so as well as locating and developing new lawmakers.
Yes, it’s a damned shame the only black senator is gone. There are lessons as a result, though.