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Race division looms in Second Suffolk fight

Yawu Miller | 10/1/2008, 4:09 a.m.

During her eight terms in office, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson has often lauded the Second Suffolk District that she represents as the most diverse in the Commonwealth.

Now, as Wilkerson mounts a sticker campaign in a bid to retain her Senate seat, the heterogeneity of the district — which stretches from Beacon Hill to Mattapan and includes Chinatown, Back Bay, the Fenway, the South End, Roxbury, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain — may well pose the biggest threat to her bid.

Sonia Chang-Diaz’s razor-thin victory over Wilkerson in the Sept. 16 state Democratic primary has exposed a fissure in the district. On one side: the blacks, Latinos and Asians who supported the incumbent. On the other: the white progressives who backed Chang-Diaz.

The division was made clear in the election results, which show that Wilkerson swept all but one precinct in which blacks, Latinos or Asians made up a majority of the voting-age population, while Chang-Diaz displayed a solid hold on majority white precincts.

The split may threaten the city’s so-called new majority, an electoral trend in which black, Latino and Asians have been able to elect candidates to office with the help of progressive white voters.

“We thought we could shift the dynamics in the city with a majority of the population,” said Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association and a founding member of the New Majority Coalition. “I see that going backwards. I think progressive whites don’t care about what people of color want or who they see as their leaders.”

The tension between the two sides of the Second Suffolk District was ratcheted up a notch last week when Wilkerson announced her plans to wage a sticker campaign to an audience of black, white, Latino and Asian supporters at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Grove Hall.

There, City Councilor Chuck Turner spoke about the historical significance of the Second Suffolk District, which was redrawn in 1974 by court order as the state’s first and only majority-minority Senate district. Speaking in support of Wilkerson, Turner said it is important that the district be represented by a candidate “rooted in the politics of the black and Latin community.”

Jean McGuire, executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc. (METCO), told the audience at Prince Hall that the district would no longer be represented by a person of color with Chang-Diaz in the seat, later telling the Dorchester Reporter that Chang-Diaz “is not a person of color.”

Those and other remarks made by Wilkerson supporters have come under fire, both in the mainstream media and on liberal blogs like Blue Mass Group, where bloggers have called on Wilkerson to denounce McGuire’s comments.

Chang-Diaz, who was born to a white mother and a father of Costa Rican and Chinese ancestry, considers herself a woman of color and a Latina. While she was born Sonia Chang — she added the Diaz from her father’s Costa Rican side of the family in 2005 — and grew up in Newton in an English-speaking household, she said she has always identified with her father’s heritage.