THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

Path cleared by downfall

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / March 16, 2011

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Can you actually send a thank you note to someone in federal prison? If so: Dear Dianne Wilkerson, Inmate, Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, thank you for clearing the way — unintentionally so — for some real leadership in the minority communities.

I was thinking this as I stood in a crowded second-floor room in a nondescript building in the South End one morning this week where young children and their parents are given the kind of rare helping hand that a frightening number of lawmakers would ax in the name of tax cuts and deficit reduction.

US Senator John F. Kerry was taking a tour. Say what you will about Kerry, he has taken on the Republicans over the federal budget with a vengeance, telling anyone who will listen that we’ve arrived at a moment that will define this country for many years to come.

But before Kerry stepped to the microphones, there was Sonia Chang-Díaz, the state senator who won the office that Dianne Wilkerson was forced to leave. “We used to say ‘women and children first’ in the lifeboats,’’ Chang Diaz said amid a brief speech that was at once firm and fiery. “Now it’s women and children last, and millionaires first.’’

Also present, Ayanna Pressley, the new Boston city councilor at-large who is rapidly becoming the face of the black community in the halls of power. When I asked her how she was doing, she said without flinching, “About as well as a person can be doing when everything they’ve ever believed in is under attack.’’

Felix Arroyo was also there, the same at-large councilor who is often promoted as a likely and formidable mayoral candidate in the future. He listened to parents describe how important the federally funded, ABCD-administered Head Start program was to their families, then slipped out before being given the stage. Imagine that, a politician who doesn’t consider his or her voice the most important one to be heard?

Chang-Díaz, Pressley, and Arroyo could pass for actors on a Fox primetime drama about inner city politics — “Mean Streets,’’ if you will — each of them young, attractive, and well-spoken. But the reality is their collective cause is painfully real and quietly carried forth. “These people live on the planet Earth,’’ the Rev. Eugene Rivers said of them yesterday. Added the Rev. Ray Hammond: “We’re going through a period of generational change, and we’ve got some great people rising up in leadership.’’

So back to Wilkerson for a moment, as well as to Chuck Turner, the ousted city councilor who disgraced himself more with his carpet-bombing reaction to the federal indictment and conviction than the bribe that he pocketed in his self-described “preacher’s handshake.’’

Before heading down I-84 toward Danbury last week, Wilkerson indulged her penchant for accusation rather than contrition. Specifically, she accused Hammond and Bishop Gideon Thompson of working with federal authorities to get her indicted — “doing the damage,’’ in her words. Hammond and Thompson both said they didn’t work with the FBI, and it is absurd to think that their help was even necessary.

“It was a cheap shot at people who’ve made a difference in the city of Boston,’’ Tom Menino said yesterday. Added Rivers: “Why on your way out the door would you trash two of the nicest guys in town, completely honorable men?’’

Because that’s just who Wilkerson is. In a state with a black governor who is close friends with our black president, Wilkerson and Turner lacked the talent and temperament to ever get out of their own way. It’s always easier to blame than achieve, or as Rivers said of the convicted duo, “They were all protest, no programs.’’

Say this for our new frustrated felons, though: At least they were kind enough to show the new generation of minority leaders exactly how not to handle the public trust.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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