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Joan Vennochi

Rules don't matter to Wilkerson

By Joan Vennochi
September 25, 2008
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STATE SENATOR Dianne Wilkerson never lets the rules get in the way of political ambition.

After losing last week's Democratic primary to newcomer Sonia Chang-Diaz, Wilkerson is now promising to wage a last-stand, write-in campaign - as a Democrat.

It doesn't matter to Wilkerson that her plan for political resurrection defeats the very purpose of a Democratic primary, which is to let voters pick the Democrat who will run in the final election. For Wilkerson, the "D" stands for "diva."

Last Tuesday, Democrats picked Chang-Diaz by a slim 228-vote margin.

Wilkerson has the right to demand a recount. But if she loses it, she isn't giving up. She's pulling a Joe Lieberman, minus the grace of doing it as a third-party candidate. "I'm not an independent. I'm a Democrat," she said emphatically when she announced her intention to run a sticker campaign.

This time, she will have to run without support from big-name Democrats who endorsed her previously.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino helped turn out votes for Wilkerson on primary day. But he called Chang-Diaz to congratulate her on her victory.

Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray also backed Wilkerson in the primary. Both now say they will back the party nominee, as determined by the recount. John Walsh, chairman of the Democratic state party, also said yesterday, "The winner who is certified after the recount will be the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party. That nominee -- and that nominee alone -- will have earned and will receive the full benefit that comes with that nomination."

What Wilkerson does have are supporters who accept her penchant for rule-breaking and are willing to make race the key reason to support her write-in campaign.

Wilkerson, the only African-American state senator in Massachusetts, is banking on a big Election Day turnout in her district for presidential candidate Barack Obama, the first African-American to win his party's nomination.

Wilkerson loyalists are also blaming the incumbent's primary day loss on support for Chang-Diaz that came from contributors outside the district, such as Barbara Lee, a major Democratic fund-raiser. They prefer that explanation to Wilkerson's record of personal and campaign finance missteps.

Just last summer, Wilkerson reached an agreement with Attorney General Martha Coakley to pay a $10,000 fine to settle campaign finance violations that date back to 2000. Two days after Wilkerson's primary loss, Coakley's office announced that Wilkerson had already violated two terms of the agreement - to make a $2,200 payment within 30 days of signing the agreement, and to submit a memo on her committee's record-keeping procedures.

It's too bad Coakley waited until after primary day to reveal Wilkerson's violation. It might have convinced more voters to support Chang-Diaz.

Wilkerson rushed a check to the AG's office after prosecutors suggested they might take her to court.

Her failure to meet the terms of her agreement in a timely fashion is just the latest chapter in a long history of well-documented transgressions. They include a guilty plea for failing to file tax returns, house arrest for breaking a court-ordered curfew, and foreclosure proceedings on her own home.

Over the years, Wilkerson attributed her campaign finance problems to sloppy bookkeeping, even though some aspects clearly crossed over into shadier realms. She has been asked to account for thousands of dollars in unexplained personal reimbursements, including money paid to her sons for consultant services.

Wilkerson's most loyal backers forgave all this in the past, and some appear ready to do it again.

According to a Boston Phoenix online account of her Tuesday night announcement to run a write-in campaign, the event was packed by at least 350 supporters, including Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, former Boston NAACP president Louis Elisa, and assorted local clergy. "That seat Dianne sits on was created by this community," said Turner.

Jean McGuire, executive director of METCO, reminded the crowd that if Chang-Diaz wins, "This will be the first time we don't have a person of color in the State House. If we don't get Dianne back in the State House, then Obama can't help you."

Bottom line: The rules don't matter to supporters like this as much as the voice Wilkerson represents as a black legislator on Beacon Hill. That's why the rules don't matter to Wilkerson, either.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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