For Wilkerson, a looming question of culpability
Roxbury pol eyes comeback 12 years after conviction on corruption charges
TENACITY ALONE SOMETIMES brings its own rewards, and Dianne Wilkerson certainly looks determined to complete her return from the political wilderness more than a decade after being sent off to federal prison for abusing the power of her elected office.
Some may call it more a matter of chutzpah.
A one-time rock star on the political landscape, the former Roxbury pol became the first Black woman elected to the state Senate in 1992 before a long fall that included various tax and campaign finance charges and ended with a bang – a felony extortion conviction that sent her to federal prison in Connecticut for two and a half years.
But more than a decade after her once promising political career came crashing down, Wilkerson appears poised to mount a comeback attempt. On Friday, she pulled nomination papers to seek her former Senate seat. It’s an open-seat contest with Sonia Chang-Diaz, who defeated Wilkerson in a Democratic primary 14 years ago, giving up the post to run for governor. Wilkerson declined to comment on her plans yesterday to GBH and the Boston Herald.
Her entry would scramble what had been shaping up as a three-way Democratic primary for the Senate seat among state Reps. Nika Elugardo and Liz Miranda and Rev. Miniard Culpepper.
A big question looming over a Wilkerson comeback run will be how she frames her federal corruption conviction. Wilkerson pleaded guilty to taking $23,500 in bribes to help a businessman with approvals to open a Roxbury nightclub. She was caught on surveillance video stuffing $100 bills into her bra – a shot that the Herald reminds readers of this morning by splashing it across its front page.
Despite the now infamous photo – and her guilty plea to the charges – Wilkerson has never exactly fallen on her sword and squarely admitted wrongdoing. In a GBH story a year ago, titled “The rehabilitation of Dianne Wilkerson,” she points to being set up by the feds in a sting operation.
When asked by GBH reporter Phillip Martin whether she regrets her actions, Wilkerson offered a curious reply.
“I would say yes,” she said. “But I don’t know what I could have done, like I did not expect [the informant] to bring cash and I couldn’t walk down the street with it in my fist. It was out of caution as opposed to subterfuge. Like, I didn’t even have an envelope.”
But the crime wasn’t that she stuffed cash in her bra rather than discreetly in a brown envelope.
“I’m trying to go through it and I can’t think of anything I shouldn’t have done, because I know so much more about what happened,” she told writer Catherine Elton while seated at No. 9 Park, the swank restaurant in the shadow of the State House that was the scene of the famous photo. She goes on to suggest the money was all above board because she was working as a consultant for the businessman who handed her the wad of $100 bills that day.Asked why she pled guilty then, Wilkerson tells Elton she didn’t think she would be judged by enough Black jurors who would understand the role of racism in her arrest, and that she’d be convicted and face a longer sentence if she took the case to trial.
How that account will play in the court of public opinion is now the question.