The Democratic primary rivals for the 2nd Suffolk District state Senate seat agree on at least one issue — the campaign is all about the incumbent’s record.
First-term state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is running on it and challenger Hassan Williams is running against it.
Both candidates dismiss talk about racially polarized voting patterns in Chang-Diaz’s 228-vote victory over embattled former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson in the 2008 primary and insist that the Sept. 14 primary clash is about issues, ideas, and results and not race.
“My challenge is all about leadership,” said Williams in an interview last week. “We just don’t see it. She has not done anything to give people hope, especially young people. The time has come for a change,” said the 45-year-old African American attorney and former Boston schoolteacher.
For her part, Chang-Diaz points to such legislative and advocacy accomplishments as CORI reform, foreclosure protection for tenants, youth summer jobs funding and renovation of the Melnea Cass recreational complex as proof she can deliver for the district. “The majority of the voters in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan care about results,” said the 32-year-old Jamaica Plain resident. “While a few may care about race, the best way to deal with it is through action, because actions speak louder than words.”
Williams, whose only previous electoral bid was a 1999 run for Boston City Council, attacked Chang-Diaz’s record at a MassVOTE forum at Hibernian Hall last week, accusing her of “plagiarism” for claiming credit for legislation filed in previous sessions by Wilkerson.
“That’s a visibly false charge,” she said after the forum. Chang-Diaz, the first Latina to serve in the state Senate, acknowledged she was not the author of the CORI reform bill and praised the efforts of her predecessor to reduce the burden of criminal convictions haunting job-seekers decades after their brushes with the law.
“There are many people who operate on a team and not just those who write the bill,” she said. “I think it is the right thing to pick up and carry the ball on the issues that Sen. Wilkerson championed.”
The 2nd Suffolk District, stretching from Beacon Hill to Mattapan, is arguably the state’s most diverse, encompassing both the trendy bistros of Charles Street and the Haitian boutiques of Blue Hill Avenue. Redistricting after the last census count reduced its African American population to 45 percent but Wilkerson, in spite of legal troubles connected to campaign finance irregularities, had no trouble winning re-election until a federal surveillance tape allegedly caught her taking a pay-off to influence a liquor license bid.
Chang-Diaz, a former schoolteacher and Statehouse aide raised in Newton, first challenged Wilkerson in 2006 in a sticker campaign after the incumbent failed to file enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot. Wilkerson prevailed in that contest but lost to Chang-Diaz in the 2008 primary just weeks before the incumbent’s indictment on federal corruption charges.
The contest two years ago was racially charged, with some Wilkerson supporters accusing Chang-Diaz of not being a “real” Latina and arguing that only an African American like Wilkerson could properly represent a district created in 1974 to empower black voters in the midst of the busing crisis.
Chang-Diaz ended up winning the race after rolling up large margins in the district’s predominantly white precincts while Wilkerson held onto her black base.
This time around, race has receded as a hot-button issue, though it never lingers too far beneath the surface. Before the forum last week, a Williams supporter approached a reporter to acknowledge that ousting an incumbent would be tough. “But we just couldn’t give her a free ride,” he added, with no need of defining the “we.”
Regardless of race, when it comes time to choose next month, voters are faced with two attractive candidates who both have compelling personal stories.
Chang-Diaz is the daughter of Franklin Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican American physicist, who trained at MIT before joining NASA to become the nation’s first Latino astronaut. Her mother, a social worker, was an active community volunteer who encouraged her daughters to enter public service. Chang-Diaz taught in the Lynn and Boston public schools before beginning a rapid rise in state politics, holding senior positions at the Statehouse and at a fiscal policy think tank before winning office on her second try. Wearing hoop earrings with her hair pulled back, Chang-Diaz flashes a bright smile as she works a crowd, asking and answering questions with unstudied enthusiasm.
Williams was a self-described troubled youth who found himself out on the street as a teenager before turning his life around. He took any job to survive, sleeping in doorways when he couldn’t afford rent, won admission to Morehouse College at age 26 and graduated with a finance degree. An Asian language specialist, he studied Japanese at Reitaku University and Chinese at Beijing Normal University, earned a law degree at Boston College and taught algebra at Boston Latin School. Tall and solidly built, he tends to speak gently but firmly in teacher’s hortatory tone. He married into the prominent Abdal-Khallaq family of Roxbury and is receiving significant campaign assistance from both family members and Boston Latin students.
Williams, citing his experience working with youth in and out of schools, advocates for the creation of trade schools to give non-college bound students a solid preparation for the work force. “Training our students in the bio-sciences, high-tech, and health care in schools with a trade curriculum will give them a head start,” he says.
Chang-Diaz says she intends to focus more attention on public safety, economic development and job creation, trying not just to save jobs from budget cuts but also to ensure increased minority hiring on public-sector construction sites.
In the battle for endorsements, the incumbent has won the backing of the Democratic ward committees from the Back Bay, Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain along with several labor groups and environmental organizations, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
The Democratic ward committees from the heart of the African American community — Ward 12 in Roxbury and Ward 14 in Dorchester — have made no endorsements and may sit out the primary. Ward 12, which interviewed both candidates this summer, strongly backed Wilkerson in 2008 along with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Gov. Deval Patrick and ¿Oiste?, a Latino political group.
This time around, Menino and ¿Oiste? have endorsed Chang-Diaz, while the Boston Teachers Union is backing Williams.
“It was a clear choice this year,” said ¿Oiste?’s executive director, Giovanna Negretti. “In her first two years as a state senator, she has been really effective at advocating for issues of concern to our community at the Statehouse.”
Sarah-Ann Shaw, co-chair of the Ward 12 Democratic Committee, said she is undecided about her primary choice. “I had been leaning one way and now I’m leaning another,” said the former WBZ-TV reporter. “This will be a very interesting primary to see if Sonia has increased her numbers in the African American community or if someone like Hassan is striking a chord. The fact is that I don’t think a lot of voters have yet gotten to know Sonia.”
Political operative and commentator Joyce Ferriabough said the jury is still out as to whether Chang-Diaz will prove a worthy successor to Wilkerson, who, in spite of her legal travails, was widely acknowledged for effective legislative and constituent service work.
“She’s been on the job for 18 months. I think that it’s about time that the state senator do more than rubber stamp budget issues,” said Ferriabough, whose husband, former City Councilor Bruce Bolling, is the son of the former 2nd Suffolk District senator, the late Royal L. Bolling Sr.
“There’s been a real history in this district since 1974 of activism. Dianne has left some big shoes to fill but she also laid the groundwork for someone to come in and show how it’s done and I’m not seeing it,” she said.
Kevin Peterson, executive director of the New Democracy Coalition at Boston University, said voters can’t lose in the upcoming primary choice. “With Hassan Williams, you have someone with deep roots in the African American community, who has professional credibility, and who has new ideas that could change the community for the better,” he said.
“On the other hand, with Sonia Chang-Diaz you have a young and inspiring incumbent who is not yet a legislative stalwart but who has the potential to become one. The issue is not race. The issue is who has the professional skills to move the district forward in the post-Wilkerson era.”