On election night, incumbent Mass. state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, affectionately called “Lady D,” declared herself the victor in what had been a mudslinging contest by the media and her opponents to unseat her.
Having learned to throw her own party and stay afloat in the game of politics, Wilkerson was unfazed when she heard that ballots from eight of her district’s precincts were improperly sealed before all the votes were tallied, leaving the outcome of the 2nd Suffolk District seat hanging in the balance. Wilkerson that night thanked and greeted her supporters as they walked into the Hamptons Inn & Suites listening to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.”
But the race for Wilkerson’s seat was not about her ebbs and flows in political office. It was about the valleys in her personal life. But to repeat them here would be to throw salt on an open wound and to obfuscate her 13-year tenure in the Legislature.
Given the challenges of being the only black senator on Beacon Hill, and the blatant onslaught of attacks to remove her from office – like the Aug. 20 issue of The Boston Herald with the headline, “Time to Dump Wilkerson” – Lady D’s enduring electability has intrigued and frustrated her opponents. Her opponents’ ability to express why they would be the better candidate has been at best inarticulate and at worse vapid.
One opponent of Wilkerson’s, Sonia Chang-Diaz, spent her campaign time personally attacking Wilkerson, playing her only trump card. At the Ward 4 Democratic Committee endorsement meeting, Chang-Diaz told members, “You should expect more. Let’s be frank and address the elephant in the room. Â¦ Conduct matters and we deserve leadership that demonstrates what’s best in our community and our party,” the South End News reported.
But when asked by a committee member what “more” would look like, Chang-Diaz said, “I can’t say I will be more influential with this particular leader or colleague in the Legislature.” Chang-Diaz did say she would be able to “restore faith in voters.”
Faith, however, is neither what needs to be restored in Wilkerson’s voters nor what Wilkerson lacks. Her voters know the spiritual place Wilkerson operates from, where she starts her day and what motivates her. “It’s their faith in me, and my faith in God, why I feel blessed coming to work,” Wilkerson told me this week. Trained as a civil rights lawyer, Wilkerson sees herself as a public servant. “I’m not here for me, I’m here for the people,” Wilkerson added. And her legislative record and public voice speak for themselves.
Wilkerson is not a combative woman, but she is forthright and steadfast on issues of fairness, and is often mistaken as arrogant. “Wilkerson has based her life on equality, equity, justice and fairness, also tenets of the bible, so her life and her life’s work go hand in hand with her spirituality,” a Wilkerson supporter said.
And clearly for Wilkerson voters, the question on the table was what would they lose if she did not win?
“We got the folks out and we taught them about write-in ballots. I am not prone to conspiracy theories, but it’s a mystery to me why votes in her district weren’t counted. The folks downtown know we don’t have no one like Dianne. She looks out for us and has for years now,” another Wilkerson supported said.
And look out for her folks, she does. Wilkerson has and will continue to take on the big guys on Beacon Hill to make sure her constituents have access to fair mortgage and homeowner insurance, especially at a time when folks were red-lining her communities. Those who serve linguistic minorities understand that Wilkerson instituted culturally competent, racially sensitive heath care and funded it.
And Wilkerson is one of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community’s best allies and a proponent for queer civil rights.
Wilkerson works hard to inform her communities, and she gets her messages out to the people, tapping every venue at her reach.
On the issue of environmental justice protection for low income and minority communities, Wilkerson wrote an op-ed in the Aug. 17 issue of The Bay State Banner. “The Expedited Streamline Permitting legislation that passed during the final week of the Legislature’s session represents an extraordinary disregard for the health quality of life for low income and minority communities in Massachusetts,” she wrote. “It speeds up a process that is already responsible for allowing the lion’s share of environmental pollutants to be located in certain neighborhoods. At present, vulnerable communities have little recourse to fight development that has the potential to harm them.”
In 1991, Wilkerson became the first African-American female to obtain a partnership in a major Boston law firm. In 1993, she was sworn in as the first African-American female to serve in the Massachusetts Senate and is currently the highest-ranking black elected official in Massachusetts. While it is true that her personal accomplishments are outstanding, her indefatigable spirit and love for the people is what has kept her in office.
And it is also her amazing ability to rise up like the mythical phoenix, and like black women depicted in Maya Angelou’s poem in which she wrote, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Two days after the election, Wilkerson was declared the official winner for the 2nd Suffolk District Senate seat. I asked Wilkerson if she felt this race was a particularly heavy burden and difficult struggle.
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” she said. “I’m blessed and truly know this.”