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Leadership at issue in 2nd Suffolk race

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

Chang-Diaz ended up winning the race after rolling up large margins in the district’s predominantly white precincts while Wilkerson held onto her black base.

This time around, race has receded as a hot-button issue, though it never lingers too far beneath the surface. Before the forum last week, a Williams supporter approached a reporter to acknowledge that ousting an incumbent would be tough. “But we just couldn’t give her a free ride,” he added, with no need of defining the “we.”

Regardless of race, when it comes time to choose next month, voters are faced with two attractive candidates who both have compelling personal stories.

Chang-Diaz is the daughter of Franklin Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican American physicist, who trained at MIT before joining NASA to become the nation’s first Latino astronaut. Her mother, a social worker, was an active community volunteer who encouraged her daughters to enter public service. Chang-Diaz taught in the Lynn and Boston public schools before beginning a rapid rise in state politics, holding senior positions at the Statehouse and at a fiscal policy think tank before winning office on her second try. Wearing hoop earrings with her hair pulled back, Chang-Diaz flashes a bright smile as she works a crowd, asking and answering questions with unstudied enthusiasm.

Williams was a self-described troubled youth who found himself out on the street as a teenager before turning his life around. He took any job to survive, sleeping in doorways when he couldn’t afford rent, won admission to Morehouse College at age 26 and graduated with a finance degree. An Asian language specialist, he studied Japanese at Reitaku University and Chinese at Beijing Normal University, earned a law degree at Boston College and taught algebra at Boston Latin School. Tall and solidly built, he tends to speak gently but firmly in teacher’s hortatory tone. He married into the prominent Abdal-Khallaq family of Roxbury and is receiving significant campaign assistance from both family members and Boston Latin students.

Williams, citing his experience working with youth in and out of schools, advocates for the creation of trade schools to give non-college bound students a solid preparation for the work force. “Training our students in the bio-sciences, high-tech, and health care in schools with a trade curriculum will give them a head start,” he says.

Chang-Diaz says she intends to focus more attention on public safety, economic development and job creation, trying not just to save jobs from budget cuts but also to ensure increased minority hiring on public-sector construction sites.

In the battle for endorsements, the incumbent has won the backing of the Democratic ward committees from the Back Bay, Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain along with several labor groups and environmental organizations, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The Democratic ward committees from the heart of the African American community — Ward 12 in Roxbury and Ward 14 in Dorchester — have made no endorsements and may sit out the primary. Ward 12, which interviewed both candidates this summer, strongly backed Wilkerson in 2008 along with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Gov. Deval Patrick and ¿Oiste?, a Latino political group.