Aim of Bay State's Wilkerson: Get Minorities Elected to Office
Legislator is one of increasing number of minority office-holders
HANGING on the wall of Dianne Wilkerson's (D) office is a drawing of Rosa Parks, the black woman who sat alone in the white section of a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. So also sits this newly elected lawmaker in the Massachusetts state Senate, a lone pioneer among 39 white colleagues.
Ms. Wilkerson has had little time to savor her job as the first black woman elected to the Bay State's Senate. This energetic young lawmaker has been busy with a hectic legislative schedule. She is also considering a run for Boston mayor in this fall's election.
Seated in her fifth-floor office, Wilkerson says one of her aims is to bring a fresh perspective to the mostly white state General Court. In Massachusetts, blacks hold only six seats in both legislative bodies. "One of the things I would love to see as my legacy is to leave two senatorial seats at a minimum, in which people of color had an opportunity to elect a senator," she says. "There's a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about my being the first, but people don't talk a lot about the fact that I'm th e only."
Indeed, more blacks are getting elected and taking on leadership roles as state legislators. In 1970, there were 168 such lawmakers in the United States. Today, there are 514, says David Bositis, senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. African-Americans in southern state legislatures - such as Louisiana and Mississippi - have especially made progress. But total gains are not that dramatic given the fact that blacks make up less than 7 percent of al l state legislators, says Roger Wilson, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments.
Redistricting at the state level has created more minority districts, thus opening up chances for blacks. Due to amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, more minorities are getting elected to state legislatures and Congress. Dr. Bositis expects to see 100 to 120 new black state lawmakers by 1995, when most states will have finished redrawing their districts.
And many successful black leaders started their careers in state legislatures. Of 13 black freshmen congressmen, 11 had served as state legislators, Bositis says. Some black politicians who began as state legislators are: Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) of Virginia, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) of Illinois.
In Massachusetts, Wilkerson represents an inner-city Boston community that is 62 percent black and the state's most diverse senatorial district. Elected last fall in a race against incumbent state senator Bill Owens (D), Wilkerson took some criticism for running against another black.
Nevertheless, her ability to build coalitions and promote racial unity has set her apart from her predecessor. In the primary, she beat Mr. Owens by a 2-to-1 ratio, and in the general election, she won in a landslide victory.
So strong has been her support that some blacks are asking the minority mayoral candidate, City Councilor Bruce Bolling, to step aside so she can run. Wilkerson declines to say when or if she'll announce her candidacy.
Boston, she says, is becoming more ethnically diverse, and that is bound to be an important theme. "This city is about 7 percentage points away from being 50 percent people of color. That's a different place than where we were 10 years ago.... I think the attitudes are different. The question is whether the city is ready to go that next step."
Wilkerson grew up in Springfield, Mass., and attended law school in Boston as a single mother with two sons. Her desire to enter politics came about after working in a law firm and as chief counsel to the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
One of her top priorities is to push for more jobs for minorities in neighborhood public-works projects. Despite construction in her district, not enough minority residents have been hired to work on the projects, she complains. "We had all of Washington Street repaved last year, and the number of people who lived in Dorchester used to stand and watch 100 white men repaving Washington street. They were coming from different places but not the city," she says.
Although the battle against discrimination continues, Wilkerson sees signs of hope as more minorities get elected. "The average everyday person, I think, is much more tolerant and willing to vote for people of different races" than politicians and the media will have us think, she says.