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Wilkerson leaves a questionable legacy

Howard Manly

Though Dianne Wilkerson formally resigned from the state Senate last Wednesday, the beginning of her end — at least politically — began two years ago during the Second Suffolk District’s Democratic primary.

Sonia Chang-Díaz, a virtual unknown, was able to actually win more voting wards than Wilkerson, the well-established incumbent.

Wilkerson regained the seat by netting more actual votes, but even her most steadfast precincts had started to show signs of fatigue and lethargy.

Those cracks widened into fissures two years later. Chang-Díaz captured two voting wards in 2008 that had gone to Wilkerson in 2006, enabling the newcomer to win nine of the 13 voting wards and, most important, the state Senate seat.

For a 15-year incumbent, Wilkerson’s numbers were dismal. She earned only 8,823 votes.

The larger tragedy, however, is found in the total numbers.

Of 108,041 registered voters in the Second Suffolk, only 18,736 showed up at the polls during the 2008 primary — a total of just 17.34 percent.

Voter turnout in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods has always been a dicey question, but part of the blame falls squarely on Wilkerson’s shoulders.

Of all the complaints heaped on the embattled ex-senator in recent weeks, none have been more disheartening than criticisms of her inability to build a political infrastructure not only for herself, but also for the very community she professed to serve.

The creation of the Second Suffolk in 1973 was supposed to change all of that. Part of the argument then was to increase minority-voting strength. As it was, four state senators represented sections of the black community, and, critics argued, diluted the power of minority votes.

Back then, the Second Suffolk stretched from the South End through Roxbury and north Dorchester to Mattapan, encompassing most of Boston’s black community. It became the highest office in the state that a black state senatorial candidate could theoretically win.

The assumption, of course, was that voters would turn out for such a candidate.

The numbers during the 1974 election were good for its day. The Democratic primary was the first in a series of battles between state Rep. Royal Bolling Sr., considered at the time the father of the Second Suffolk, and the brash newcomer Bill Owens. It was Bolling’s seat for the taking, but Owens did the improbable — he won.

A total of 11,147 voters cast ballots during the primary, which saw Owens earn 4,796 votes to Bolling’s 4,019. The numbers grew during the general election to a total of about 20,000 voters. Of those, 12,432 voters chose Owens.

Admittedly, the district has been reconfigured over the years, its boundaries drawn and redrawn. But the point must be made: In terms of voter turnout, not much has changed in the last 34 years.

And without voter interest, the very notion of minority voting strength is just that — a notion, not a reality.

Part of the blame for the low interest, again, lies at Wilkerson’s feet. She did a lot of great things during her tenure, but building a vehicle for civic involvement was not one of them.

As it turned out, her last chance came in 2006.

During that Democratic primary, for instance, 25,606 voters showed up. About half of them voted for one of the four candidates. Wilkerson won with 6,478 votes. Chang-Díaz earned 5,711. But the true winner was “blank,” which received 12,645 votes.

Those 2006 numbers got better during the general election, when Wilkerson was able to pull a staggering 28,820 voters. Republican Samiyah Diaz, another political unknown, still managed to pull 11,079 voters.

Those numbers were only slightly better than when Wilkerson ran for the first time, all the way back in 1992. During that year’s Democratic primary, she was able to pull the support of 7,124 voters, slightly more than double the amount of incumbent Owens. During the general election, she received 24,932 out of a total of 33,618 votes.

But instead of building on those numbers in a significant way, Wilkerson let them remain virtually stagnant — partly the result of the inordinate amount of time she was forced to deal with personal, ethical or potentially criminal problems.