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Ailing Hub nonprofits ponder loss of Wilkerson’s support

ASSOCIATED PRESS | 1/7/2009, 3:42 a.m.
Then-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (left) makes a point during a community forum held at Roxbury Community College on Monday, Oct. 27, 2008. Looking on are state Rep. Gloria Fox (second from left), William Leonard of the Socialist Workers Party (third from left), and Sonia Chang-Díaz, who defeated Wilkerson in the September 2008 Democratic primary race for the Second Suffolk District’s seat on the state Senate, and won the seat in the November general election. When Wilkerson exited the state Senate, nonprofits in the Second Suffolk lost a key State House ally. Don West

The Casa Nueva Vida homeless shelter has watched its state funding decrease in a deteriorating economy and is preparing for more cuts after using most of its reserves to cover services to homeless families in Jamaica Plain.

And for the first time in 16 years, it can’t look to Dianne Wilkerson for help.

“Sen. Wilkerson was always a friend,” said Casa Nueva Vida CEO Manuel Duran said. “We are definitely going to miss her experience.”

When Wilkerson lost her state Senate seat in the Democratic primary in September — roughly a month before she was charged in federal court with taking bribes — the nonprofits in her district lost a key ally at the State House who had the reputation of being able to fix problems with a phone call or use her seniority to ensure funding.

“It’s only natural for groups to invest so much political capital on a leader who delivers,” said Tom Whalen, a political historian at Boston University. “Once that champion is gone, it’s a problem.”

Wilkerson, elected in 1992, was the Senate’s lone black member before her primary loss to Sonia Chang-Díaz. She has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and attempted extortion charges for allegedly accepting $23,500 in bribes from a businessman she believed needed help getting a liquor license.

The federal charges were only the most recent legal problem for Wilkerson, who has a long history of campaign finance violations and personal legal problems.

Despite her various and often public troubles, Wilkerson maintained widespread support in her district because she delivered, said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University.

“Seniority counts and it counts in a big way,” Berry said.

Many of the nonprofits in Wilkerson’s district serve minority and poor residents in the center of the city’s black population, and Wilkerson often worked to get earmarks for those organizations, said the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church.

“She showed up at fundraisers and she was fully engaged in helping nonprofits,” Hamilton said.

For example, Wilkerson successfully pushed a bill that encouraged insurance companies to invest in housing and business efforts in low-income areas. The bill helped nonprofits in her district obtain funds for various initiatives through the Community Reinvestment Act.

Wilkerson also sat on a number of boards for nonprofit groups, where she used her influence to steer private money to organizations.

In 2004, as an ex-officio board member of the Roxbury Trust Fund Committee, Wilkerson helped set up an annual $300,000 gift to various Roxbury nonprofits that focus on youth development and family services. She also convinced Sovereign Bank to commit $3.6 billion to a community investment plan to benefit area nonprofit organizations, businesses and residents.