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Race and Class Divide Heated State Senate Race

Some Boston neighborhoods are divided down racial and ethnic lines after a hotly contested state senate race that's still not over.

Sonia Chang-Diaz edged out long-time incumbent Dianne Wilkerson in the democratic primary by winning neighborhoods where whites are the majority.

Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods supported Wilkerson, the state's lone black senator. Now, Wilkerson is waging a sticker campaign in the general election. She's betting that the heavy turnout will go in her favor.

The thing you have to know about the Second Suffolk senate district is that it reaches from Beacon Hill to Mattapan, encompassing the richest and poorest parts of the city. Senator Dianne Wilkerson lives in Roxbury, the heart of African- American life in Boston. Chang-Diaz makes her home in Jamaica Plain, an increasingly white section of town.

Joe Lewis is from Mattapan, where the median household lives off of $47,000 a year. He volunteered for Dianne Wilkerson's primary campaign. He is now angry that someone from J.P. won the senate seat to represent him.

"She doesn't represent us," Lewis says. "She doesn't identify with our neighborhood, first of all."

Lewis says Wilkerson had fought hard on issues like substance abuse, juvenile justice and health care. He wants to ask Chang-Diaz about her experience and... who she is.

"How long have you been around people of color?" Lewis asks. "Why do you consider yourself a person of color? We're black everyday — all the time."

Chang-Diaz calls it "disingenuous" for Wilkerson's supporters to suggest she's not also a person of color.

"First, let me say very clearly, I'm proud of my Latina heritage, my father emigrated to this country from Costa Rica," Chang-Diaz says.

Chang-Diaz has light olive-colored skin and typically wears her straight black hair in a low bun, thick black eyeliner on her top lids, and a necklace made of chunky stones. Even in a pantsuit she resembles a young Frida Kahlo. The 29-year old grew up in Newton, and now lives in J.P. She says race or ethnic identity don't matter to voters.

"In my experience, over these last five months of talking to voters one on one, everyday, is that's not something that voters are really interested in," Chang-Diaz says. "Folks are concerned about the strength of the public schools in the city, and they're concerned about neighborhood safety, and they're concerned about the economic hardships that they're facing. And those are the things that I'm always going to be focused on when talking to voters."

Sen. Wilkerson has been in office 15 years. She came to office after more than a decade as a lawyer. She looks much younger than her 53 years and has a penchant for wearing red. Wilkerson, who has skin the color of coffee, says it is sad that race has come up as a subject in this campaign.

"I really don't think that it is necessarily in the interest of the district as a whole for the conversation of the next five weeks to be about race," Wilkerson says. "I certainly wouldn't suggest that people who didn't vote for me had an issue about race."

Some of Wilkerson's supporters suggest the divide between neighborhoods has more to do with class than race. Melvin Miller publishes the Bay State Banner, a weekly newspaper covering Roxbury.

"The more affluent don't have the same need for representation on Beacon Hill and the senate as we do," Miller says. "I can understand how the issue of a senator who gets in trouble is a much more pressing issue to them than the issues that are important to Wilkerson, to help the poor and the dispossessed."

By trouble, Miller is referring to Wilkerson's financial and legal problems over the last decade. She recently paid $10,000 to the state attorney general's office for campaign finance problems dating back to 2000. More than a decade ago, Wilkerson pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors for not paying federal taxes. Just this week, the state's office of the bar counsel filed a complaint accusing Wilkerson of violating the rules of professional conduct as a lawyer two years ago.

Sonia-Chang Diaz, who's spent most of her career working as a policy analyst and campaign strategist, hammered away on Wilkerson's problems during the campaign.

Visit Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood that went for Chang-Diaz and you hear this message come back from voters. Christen O'Connor was pushing her baby in a stroller down Center Street recently.

"I have a real issue with somebody who in their personal life thinks that they do not have to uphold the same rules and laws that I do," O'Connor says. "So it's hard for me to vote for somebody, even though I'm going to vote Democratic when they don't have their personal lives together so I'm going to vote for Sonia."

But talk to another J.P. resident, Shannon McCarthy, and you hear another side of Jamaica Plain. McCarthy says she's voting for Wilkerson because of her support for gay marriage.

"It means everything in the world to me," McCarthy says. "She stood up from the very beginning, and stood up when she got a lot of flack for her position from her constituents, and she always stood up for what she believed in."

McCarthy doesn't make much of Wilkerson's financial and legal problems — and worries about losing Wilkerson's seniority in the district.

That's why Wilkerson says she's running her write-in campaign. Because her constituents fear having a new, unknown senator at a time when the economy is falling apart.

And she may have a real shot says Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at Umass Boston. The close primary and huge turnout expected in November make it possible.

Watanabe says it's not surprising that race, class and neighborhood have polarized voters when talking about this election, since so much is at stake.

Watanabe says: "The shorthand of simply arguing that this is a battle based upon racial politics alone doesn't work, doesn't wash, is undesirable, and is not going to get victory for either side."

Both candidates will need to sell themselves to the entire district.

This program aired on October 10, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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