Despite guilty plea, community rallies around Wilkerson
WORCESTER — In 1987, Dianne Wilkerson successfully led a challenge to the seating of the all-white Ward 6 delegation from South Boston at the Democratic State Convention, launching a career in politics that led to the Massachusetts Senate and to the verge of even higher office.
This time around, it was the former 2nd Suffolk District state senator who was absent from the convention hall, brought down by bribery charges to which she pled guilty on the eve of the Democratic gathering.
Delegates at the DCU Center largely expressed sympathy for the eight-term lawmaker, preferring to recall her accomplishments in office rather than the scandal that drove her from it.
At the same time, many questioned whether the plea in federal court would leave unanswered questions about what other political figures may have been involved in selling influence to grease the regulatory skids for valuable liquor licenses.
“I’m sorry about what happened to her,” said Ward 12 delegate and pioneering TV journalist Sarah-Ann Shaw. “The community has really lost a fierce advocate. Part of me is happy that she stepped up to the plate and showed culpability, but part of me is concerned that we won’t ever know the full story of just what happened.”
Bill Singleton, a Ward 9 delegate who produces documentary films, looked at Wilkerson’s downfall through the lens of what he called greater political transgressions.
“Look, people make mistakes,” he said. “And the one she made should not be a political death sentence. After all, we had a president who took us to war under false pretenses and cost us thousands of lives.”
Like others, Singleton cited Wilkerson’s work in fighting redlining by banks and a strong constituent service record as memorable accomplishments.
Kevin Peterson, director of the New Democracy Coalition at Boston University, said Wilkerson’s guilty plea is another erosion of black political power that began in 2008, when her loss to Sonia Chang-Diaz left the state Senate without African American representation for the first time in close to four decades.
“This is an unfortunate close to what could have been a spectacular career and the opportunity for the African American community to really advance,” said Peterson, attending the convention as an observer.
Former state Sen. Bill Owens, who lost to Wilkerson in the 1992 Democratic primary, echoed Peterson’s comment, saying simply, “It’s unfortunate that our community will lose power.”
Jim Spencer, a political consultant who has worked extensively in communities of color in Boston and around the nation, saw the guilty plea as potentially ending a much-needed inquiry into the cozy relationship between elected officials, licensed establishments and the regulators who grant the concessions.
“We still have to see what happens with Chuck’s case,” said Spencer, referring to pending bribery charges against Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, accused federal prosecutors of targeting black elected officials and vowed to fight the accusations at trial.
“At the end of the day,” added Spencer, “we’re all human beings. Whatever happened with Dianne doesn’t take away all the incredible things she did for this community and her district. She was a real fighter.”
Rosalinda Midence, a Ward 9 delegate who works in the guidance office at the newly renamed Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, said Wilkerson’s guilty plea meant it was time to turn the page.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Midence. “She did a lot for her constituents and our community. But now we have a new senator and it’s time to move on.”