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Republican state Senate candidate Samiyah Diaz, with volunteer William Mack, campaigned at Leverett Circle on Saturday.
Republican state Senate candidate Samiyah Diaz, with volunteer William Mack, campaigned at Leverett Circle on Saturday. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

GOP picks a fight

Law student takes aim at Wilkerson

(Correction: Because of a photographer's error, a photo caption in Monday's City & Region section of Republican state Senate candidate Samiyah Diaz and volunteer William Mack gave an incorrect location where the pair were campaigning. They were at Charles Circle.)

She is the daughter of immigrants. She is black and Hispanic. She is a single mother, and a Muslim.

And, to the delight of the state party, Samiyah Diaz is also a Republican.

The law student, who is collecting signatures to oppose state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, the Roxbury Democrat, in November, may have little chance of besting the 13-year incumbent. But for longtime Republicans, Diaz's candidacy is as much about shifting the image of the Republican Party as it is about winning.

''For the Republican Party, which needs to find some new energy on the state legislative front, supporting a candidate like this will send a message that this party is willing to grow and become more inclusive," said Patrick C. Guerriero, the former Massachusetts legislator and Melrose mayor who now heads the Log Cabin Republicans.

Diaz, 28, says labels don't matter. She is basing her candidacy partly on what she sees as Wilkerson's shortcomings: failure to pay federal income taxes, foreclosure on her condominium, $70,000 in campaign donations and expenses that are currently being investigated by the state attorney general's office.

''She has given the people of this district a bad name," said Diaz, sitting in a sunny South End Starbucks on a recent afternoon. ''She lacks credibility. She has no integrity. One mistake is one thing, but to keep doing it over and over again, it's not something someone in public office, elected by the people, should be doing. I think it's time for a choice, and I want to be that choice for the people."

Diaz, currently in her second year at New England School of Law, had been thinking about running for office for a few years. She decided to join the Republicans because, she said, ''they believe that anyone can come from anything and become something. The platform of the party believes in individual rights and responsibilities, and that's something I believe in."

Diaz, who describes herself as socially progressive (she is in favor of gay marriage, for example), was unenrolled until last year, she said.

Dan Winslow, former chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney, met Diaz, a fellow graduate of Tufts University, at an alumni lawyers function and recalled being impressed with her. At that time, he said, she was not a Republican, but she was comfortable with ''the general Republican philosophy." She told him she would like to run for Wilkerson's seat, he said.

Eventually, he said, she recognized that the best way to challenge Wilkerson was from outside the Democratic Party.

''Between the philosophical and the practical, she seemed very comfortable with the approach of joining the Republican Party in order to run," said Winslow, who is now chief legal adviser to the Diaz campaign.

Diaz is the daughter of immigrants from Trinidad. She lived in Boston until she was 7 and was a Metco student for two years in the Melrose system before her mother, an accountant, and father, a maintenance worker, moved her and her sister to Randolph. She attended Tufts on scholarships and financial aid, receiving undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science.

She converted to Islam in college, she said, after looking into other religions, including Judaism and Buddhism. She had Muslim friends, and when she read the Koran, ''it made sense to me," Diaz said. She believes she is the first Muslim to run for the Legislature.

''My religion is very dear to me, but it doesn't change the type of candidate I am," Diaz said.

So far, Diaz's policy positions are not as sharp as her criticisms of Wilkerson. She described her priorities as education, public safety, and quality of life. She feels especially strongly about education because she has a daughter in kindergarten. She is in favor of more accountability for teachers, and for more choice for parents. Beyond that, she said, she hopes to develop more detailed positions later in the campaign, when she has a chance to listen to people in the district.

Ousting Wilkerson will not be easy.

Wilkerson has had embarrassing financial troubles before, and they have never put a dent in her appeal in the diverse Second Suffolk District, which includes all of Chinatown, the South End, Fenway, Roxbury, Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain, and parts of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Dorchester, and Mattapan.

In 1998, Wilkerson had been recently convicted of failing to pay $50,000 in federal income taxes when Republican Rose A. Brayboy ran against her. Wilkerson trounced her, 74 percent to 26 percent, in the general election.

Wilkerson was not available for an interview, said political consultant Joyce Ferriabough, who is advising her .

Anybody who opposes Wilkerson should ''have a very strong platform," said veteran political consultant Boyce Slayman, who has been a campaign manager for the incumbent.

''If [Diaz] focuses on any public or perceived damage to the senator because of her financial irregularities, she has lost, she has wasted her money. There is not a harder-working black elected official in the city than Dianne Wilkerson, none more effective at delivering for her constituents . . . That cancels out every other problem she has had."

In the district, ''people feel a bit ashamed that somebody so bright could do something so stupid, but they love her nonetheless," he said.

Republicans clearly disagree. State party executive director Matt Wylie said the party is excited about Diaz. The group Greater Boston Young Republicans is helping her organize.

Guerriero, who has met with Diaz several times, said that her personal story will resonate, and that she will get the support of ''folks who want to build a broader Republican Party."

Still, her race will not be one of the party's ''targeted" ones, Winslow said. The district doesn't have enough voters who are likely to back a Republican, he said.

''It may not be a sure win," Diaz said. ''But my whole life has been based on adversity, and this is the best kind of environment for me. I love it."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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