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Chang-Diaz ousts Wilkerson in primary night shocker

Yawu Miller | 9/17/2008, 6:26 a.m.
State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson pauses while supporters applaud during her concession speech, delivered Tuesday night at the Hen House Wings ’n Waffles Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue. Wilkerson, a 15-year incumbent and the only African American legislator in the state Senate, was defeated in the state Democratic primary Tuesday by challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz. Yawu Miller

Despite an organization packed with some of the most seasoned campaign veterans in Boston’s black and Latino communities, longtime incumbent Dianne Wilkerson lost the Second Suffolk District seat in the state Senate to challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz, falling short in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election by just over 200 votes.

The race pitted Wilkerson’s base of support in the black and Latino communities in Roxbury and the South End against Chang-Diaz’s supporters in Jamaica Plain and the South End.

While both campaigns worked hard to identify supporters and turn them out to the polls, Chang-Diaz’s organization squeaked by with her campaign’s promise of change. The unofficial tally provided Tuesday night by the city’s Election Department showed Chang-Diaz with 9,051 votes to Wilkerson’s 8,823.

At a post-primary gathering, Wilkerson thanked her supporters and the community for giving her the political support to advance an ambitious political agenda that included issues as varied as gay marriage and the Community Reinvestment Act.

“I believe this district has allowed me to take positions that represent the entire district,” she said, speaking to supporters at the Hen House Wings ’n Waffles Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue.

In the end, the race came down to the strength of the candidates’ organizations and the will of their supporters to turn out and vote.

While Wilkerson had support from the Service Employees International Union locals 615 and 1199 and endorsements from Gov. Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and City Councilor Chuck Turner, she noted that her base of support in the black community had to contend with polling location changes in nine precincts — a formidable setback.

Throughout predominantly black and Latino precincts in Mattapan, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, Wilkerson’s campaign volunteers were visible, manning the polls, knocking on doors of supporters and driving them to voting locations.

Chang-Diaz, who was born to a Latino father, seemed to focus more narrowly on a base of support in predominantly white precincts in Jamaica Plain, Back Bay and the South End.

Chang-Diaz’s victory brought an end to Wilkerson’s 15-year career in the Senate. It will be the first time in more than 25 years that a candidate of color has not prevailed in the Second Suffolk District.

Although Chang-Diaz claims white and Latino ancestry, Wilkerson’s black and Latino supporters seemed to view her loss as a setback to candidates of color — a theme Wilkerson echoed in the concession speech she delivered late Tuesday.

“This proves you can become a representative of this district without representing its core, and that makes me feel sick,” Wilkerson said. “We have to renew our efforts to maintain the diversity we’ve been building in the City Council and the State House.”

Wilkerson’s 15 years in the Senate were marked by stunning legislative victories and often explosive personal setbacks, including a stint in a halfway house after she was convicted of filing her income taxes late four years in a row.

In 2006, the candidates squared off in a sticker campaign — after Wilkerson’s campaign failed to submit sufficient valid signatures to place her name on the ballot.

Most recently, she was fined $10,000 by the state attorney general’s office for violating campaign finance laws five years in a row.

While the senator’s ethical violations did not significantly erode her support in the black community, Chang-Diaz was able to capitalize on white voters’ dissatisfaction with Wilkerson, campaigning on a theme of change.

She began door-knocking in March, steadily building support for her challenge.

As Wilkerson delivered what may well be her last election-night speech, the mood in the Hen House was somber. But Wilkerson sought to reassure her supporters, urging them to continue to work to elect candidates who represent communities of color.

“We’ll be OK,” Wilkerson said. “I do want you to eat the rest of this food, because I have to pay the bill no matter what. I thank you and may God continue to bless this community.”