Leadership at issue in 2nd Suffolk race

Brian Wright O’Connor | 9/1/2010, 5:04 a.m.

The Democratic primary rivals for the 2nd Suffolk District state Senate seat agree on at least one issue — the campaign is all about the incumbent’s record.

First-term state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is running on it and challenger Hassan Williams is running against it.

Both candidates dismiss talk about racially polarized voting patterns in Chang-Diaz’s 228-vote victory over embattled former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson in the 2008 primary and insist that the Sept. 14 primary clash is about issues, ideas, and results and not race.

“My challenge is all about leadership,” said Williams in an interview last week. “We just don’t see it. She has not done anything to give people hope, especially young people. The time has come for a change,” said the 45-year-old African American attorney and former Boston schoolteacher.

For her part, Chang-Diaz points to such legislative and advocacy accomplishments as CORI reform, foreclosure protection for tenants, youth summer jobs funding and renovation of the Melnea Cass recreational complex as proof she can deliver for the district. “The majority of the voters in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan care about results,” said the 32-year-old Jamaica Plain resident. “While a few may care about race, the best way to deal with it is through action, because actions speak louder than words.”

Williams, whose only previous electoral bid was a 1999 run for Boston City Council, attacked Chang-Diaz’s record at a MassVOTE forum at Hibernian Hall last week, accusing her of “plagiarism” for claiming credit for legislation filed in previous sessions by Wilkerson.

“That’s a visibly false charge,” she said after the forum. Chang-Diaz, the first Latina to serve in the state Senate, acknowledged she was not the author of the CORI reform bill and praised the efforts of her predecessor to reduce the burden of criminal convictions haunting job-seekers decades after their brushes with the law.

“There are many people who operate on a team and not just those who write the bill,” she said. “I think it is the right thing to pick up and carry the ball on the issues that Sen. Wilkerson championed.”

The 2nd Suffolk District, stretching from Beacon Hill to Mattapan, is arguably the state’s most diverse, encompassing both the trendy bistros of Charles Street and the Haitian boutiques of Blue Hill Avenue. Redistricting after the last census count reduced its African American population to 45 percent but Wilkerson, in spite of legal troubles connected to campaign finance irregularities, had no trouble winning re-election until a federal surveillance tape allegedly caught her taking a pay-off to influence a liquor license bid.

Chang-Diaz, a former schoolteacher and Statehouse aide raised in Newton, first challenged Wilkerson in 2006 in a sticker campaign after the incumbent failed to file enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot. Wilkerson prevailed in that contest but lost to Chang-Diaz in the 2008 primary just weeks before the incumbent’s indictment on federal corruption charges.

The contest two years ago was racially charged, with some Wilkerson supporters accusing Chang-Diaz of not being a “real” Latina and arguing that only an African American like Wilkerson could properly represent a district created in 1974 to empower black voters in the midst of the busing crisis.