Wilkerson v Chang-Diaz

In a surprise, Bay Windows endorses Sonia Chang-Diaz today over incumbent state senator Dianne Wilkerson; two years ago they backed Wilkerson. Sister paper South End News joins them. The Globe, which if I'm not mistaken did not endorse in '06, also endorses Chang-Diaz today, joining the Herald. The Bay State Banner has endorsed Wilkerson.

The Phoenix is not endorsing in the race. (The paper endorsed Chang-Diaz last time.)  And I am not going to -- I like both candidates, and can fully understand why people might make the call one way or the other.

I do, however, want to tell a pro-Wilkerson story that, as too often happens, went untold because there was nothing bad to say.

Five years ago, the state undertook an ambitious attempt to reform the laws governing public construction projects. It's one of those arcane, dry subjects that gets little public attention but in fact has more real impact on taxpayers, towns, employers, and workers, than the matters that typically grab headlines and spark radio debate. It also affects many powerful, competing stakeholders, including contractors, trade unions, municipalities, small businesses, and many others -- in fact, 19 different organizations representing such interests had appointees on the special commission established to hammer out the reform. In those situations, skeptics like myself assume that little, if anything, will get done in the end -- or that whatever does happen will screw the actual taxpaying residents of the Commonwealth.

The commission had three co-chairs. For the house, it was Marty Walsh; his motivation was obvious, as he's a trade-union guy through-and-through. The second co-chair was a representative for Governor Romney, whose motivation was presumably to avoid anything that would look bad to Republican primary voters in 2008. The third was senator Wilkerson.

I couldn't figure her motivation, since she seemed to have no prior particular interest or expertise in the subject. So, cynic that I am, I guessed that she wanted to line her campaign coffers with the inevitable contributions form those stakeholders (which she did in fact receive), and that in the end she would protect them and sell out the constituents, by producing weak reform, bad reform, or no reform.

I kept an eye on the process, talking to the various stakeholders, and then delving into the massive bill that emerged in 2004. I was fully prepared to slam Wilkerson for the sell-out. But it didn't happen.

Instead, I heard nothing but high praise for Wilkerson -- on and off the record. She immersed herself in the topic, mastering the details and nuances. (Walsh, who has endorsed Wilkerson, later described her to me as "possibly the smartest legislator in the state house" -- which I realize could be seen as damning with faint praise.) All of the stakeholders I spoke with said that their input was heard, understood, and seriously considered. Nobody ended up with exactly what they wanted, but nobody felt that they had been shafted. (There is one exception: the University of Massachusetts demanded to be exempted from the reforms, and caused -- and continues to cause -- a stink about it; I did write about that aspect of the process.)

The 25 members of the commission unanimously supported it, the bill sailed through the senate and house, and Romney signed it into law in July 2004. That overwhelming support was not the result of watering it down: the Construction Management Association of America called it "some of the most significant revisions to the public construction process [nationally] in nearly a quarter-century."

None of this excuses the transgressions for which many believe Wilkerson should be ousted -- the severity of which voters will judge for themselves. Nor am I suggesting that Chang-Diaz is less than capable of performing equally impressively in office. It's just a story that, perhaps unfairly, I never wrote.

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