As the 197th Turns: Decision Day Draws Near For Special Election Chock Full of Residency Hearings, Felonies, Write-In Candidates, Threats, Vandalism and PA Supreme Court Rulings
On March 21st, the 197th Legislative District will hold a special election to name a new state representative to Harrisburg. But this election is more than just “special” — it’s been all over the place. So much so, that we at Spirit News have dubbed this soap opera of a race “As the 197th Turns.” Politics looking like a soap opera? I know, you’ve all heard that one before. But this election has been especially crazy, and it’s been going on right in our backyard.
You’ve got residency hearings, felonies, write-in candidates, threats, vandalism and PA Supreme Court rulings — and only one candidate on the ballot to show for it. The only way this thing gets crazier is if Steve Harvey and Warren Beatty come out to announce the winner. But no matter who announces the winner — for political nerds this race is “La La Land” — there’s a significant chance the local political machine suffers an upset defeat.
Let’s recap for you folks who weren’t paying any attention because, let’s be honest, Philly politics is a lot of same ol’, same ol’. Not this time, though.
The expensive, taxpayer-funded special election came about because Leslie Acosta, the previous State Representative for the 197th District, refused to resign despite committing a felony while in office. She even won re-election due to being unopposed in the general election this past November.
Acosta initially held out from resigning so she could get one of her buddies, Fred Ramirez, on the ballot, which worked at first. But after a residency hearing, a judge ruled that Ramirez didn’t live in the district he wished to represent and was thus removed from the official ballot.
Since the Ramirez decision came down two days after the ballot deadline, local Democrats couldn’t put anyone on the ballot, which left Lucinda Little, the Republican candidate, as the only name on the ballot.
Enter Emilio Vazquez, a Philadelphia Parking Authority employee and Democratic Leader of the 43rd Ward. He was assisting Ramirez during the residency hearing and occasionally runs for office himself, according to PA Department of State records.
While setting up a write-in campaign, Vazquez also appealed to get his name on the ballot. According to PPA rules, he had to take a leave of absence or quit his $58,220-a-year job at the airport to run for office, which he had not done at the time of his candidacy.
As the Democrats scrambled, longtime local community activist Cheri Honkala decided to run on the Green Party ticket. However, Honkala and the Greens were told they missed the filing deadline due to a missing paper, despite being assured that all was in order. They then lost their appeal in court and thus will also be held off of the official ballot. Honkala has continued to campaign as a write-in candidate.
Dirty campaigning has also followed some of these candidates home. Someone scoured Honkala’s Facebook friends list and started asking the ones with Hispanic-sounding names for dirt on Honkala and votes for Fred Ramirez. Honkala also told Spirit News that her tires were flattened and one of her staffer’s cars was vandalized. Meanwhile, after Ramirez got kicked off the ballot, someone scrawled a note that read “You will pay bitch for Fred” and dropped it off at Little’s house.
Is the soap opera analog a little clearer now? Like candidates on a ballot, so are the days of our lives. Now that you’re caught up with “As the 197th Turns,” let’s meet the candidates, so you can decide who you want to represent your district in Harrisburg for the next two years, or know who to root for when this season concludes on Election Day next week!
Lucinda Little – Republican
Lucinda Little is on the ballot for the Republicans. Yes, the Party of Lincoln, which is fitting because he was probably president the last time a Republican represented this neighborhood. Okay, that’s not true, but it’s been about 50 years. Even if Little wins, she isn’t exactly Steve Bannon. She’s not a Trump fan, she supports organized labor, and she will not help the Republicans beat up Philly’s sanctuary city status (the 197th is primarily Hispanic).
Sitting in her modest home she shares with her husband, Jeff, Little explained that she’s “not even a politician,” let alone a Republican or a Democrat. If she ends up in Harrisburg, “everyone is a potential ally… Democrats, Republicans, the polka-dot party,” she said.
Little can distance herself from the GOP all she wants and her political stances may even substantiate some of that, but another city Republican said the affiliation with the party in charge of the state could be beneficial for the city.
State Rep. Martina White (170th) spoke about access to the statewide Republicans in committees and getting funds for Philly. “Having us at the table for these conversations is really important,” she told Spirit News in February. “It’s what allows us to get more dollars for Philadelphia, or at least [dollars] we send up back.”
While White can’t count on Little’s support for action against sanctuary cities, she would get an ally against the soda tax. White was one of 36 state legislators to sign an amicus brief against the tax (Angel Cruz (D-180th) also signed it). Little walked around her district with other local Republicans like Ross Feinberg and Chris Sawyer, who both ran for citywide offices recently, and told business owners about her opposition to the tax.
One corner store owner, who would only give her name as Veronica, was selling 99 cent soda for more than $2. She became angry when discussing the tax. Through an interpreter she said, “The tax is terrible” and “It is too much.” She then grabbed a baseball bat and began yelling. The interpreter explained that the bat was for the person who tries to collect the tax.
Little said most residents complain about the trash in the streets, abandoned houses and the lack of jobs. She says she plans to address all of these things in Harrisburg.
Little explained to one resident, “We’re actually creating an app for your cell phone [to report] any problems,” adding that the even though the city has a 311 app, people say it takes the city too long to address the issues. She further explained that her app will allow constituents to report any problems they are having with government, “including taxes… and will give you direct access to me.”
As Little made her way through the neighborhood she came upon two gentleman working on a 1996 Isuzi Trooper. One of them, Angel Nebot, explained that he used to “work for the government” back in Puerto Rico. “I used to have 34 people in my charge,” he said. Those workers planted trees, cleaned sidewalks, painted bridges and worked in hospitals.
Nebot walked Little up to an abandoned lot he is concerned about, saying that a lot like this wouldn’t exist under his watch in Puerto Rico. The lot is what would be Bristol Street between Reece and 5th. Little began taking notes while Sawyer pointed out the city wants to pay an exorbitant amount to cap I-95 downtown “but could spend $5 million right here” and revitalize the neighborhood.
Cheri Honkala – Green
Cheri Honkala, the Green Party candidate, was knocked off the ballot due to having some information from her nomination paperwork missing and failing to get that info in on time. Honkala questions the legitimacy of that process and says that she was assured by officials before the deadline that all was in order. Despite her frustration — a member of Honkala’s team said without a Democrat on the ballot the election would be a “slam dunk” for them if they were on the ballot — she has decided to continue on as a write-in candidate.
Despite being knocked off the ballot, Honkala says she’s still the target of the Democrats. “The big boys are coming after me,” Honkala said, with a sly smile indicating a resigned pride. “Running for office is dangerous in Philly.”
She speaks from experience: “I was an election monitor in El Salvador and in Venezuela,” she said. “What happens in this city makes the corruption look like nothing in those countries.”
“My office will be a sanctuary,” she said. Her stance is elaborated on her website: “Immigration officials will have to break into State Representative Honkala’s office and go through her and her lawyers to get to a member of our community.”
Honkala is also a renowned advocate for homeless people. In fact, she was once homeless herself and understands the experience. “People call me crazy,” she said. “But I intend to share my salary, my daily per diem, and the day after I’m elected I’m gonna ‘Pull-a-Cheri.’”
Honkala said her son calls “Pull-a-Cheri” a verb because it’s an action word.
“I’m gonna drive around the district, I’m gonna load up the van and I’m ending homelessness the day after my election,” she said. “I’m gonna take them to the agencies… that get millions of dollars to deal with the issue of homelessness. Because I want to flip the script. It should be against the law to let women and children freeze on the street.”
Walking around Francisville, Honkala chatted up multiple neighbors at a time. While policy issues came up, more often than not residents didn’t even know there was an election.
Honkala explained this problem but thinks the energy of this race is a sign of change. “I think that the end of corruption has started,” she said. “It’s the beginning of participatory democracy. They didn’t want anybody to know there was a special election; they didn’t want anybody to get involved and most of the places I’ve been in the district nobody has ever knocked on their door.” Honkala attributes this to the fact that the party machine has the voters that they need and have no inclination to increase voter turnout with people that might not do what they tell them to do.
“If you have 26 people that vote you’re breaking the rules if you bring out the 27th, 28th and 29th person,” Cheri added.
Now, in an ironic twist, it will be the Democrats who need to teach people about write-ins if they want to win.
Emilio Vazquez – Democrat
Vazquez did not return calls to confirm he is still running after the Supreme Court ruled against him and the Democrats. He was assisting Ramirez at his residency hearing. He is the Democratic leader of the 43rd Ward.
The only ward leader reached for comment, who would not allow her name to be used in print, said she will support the Party-backed write-in no matter who it is. When asked if she thought Emilio Vazquez was who she would back, she repeated, “I will support the Party-backed candidate.” Regarding operating a write-in campaign, she said, “We just gotta work it.”
Other rumored write-ins are: Edward Lloyd, Orlando Acosta, Juan Rodriguez, Danita Bates and five or thirty others. Disney did not respond to inquiries as to whether Mickey Mouse is officially a candidate, though like Fred Ramirez, he spends a lot of time in Orlando, Florida and may not survive a residency challenge.
What to expect on Election Day
The District Attorney’s office will have boots on the ground to ensure that this special election goes smoothly and without any foul play. They will be utilizing the staff that speaks Spanish, according to Cameron Kline, spokesperson for the office. Voters can call 215-686-9641, 9643, 9644 if they experience any problems casting their ballot. There are 76 divisions involved in this election (all of the 43rd and 19th, parts of 11, 16, 37, 42, and 49).
To vote for Little, a voter would simply need to push her ballot button. To vote for Honkala or one of the other write-ins, a voter will need to push the “write-in” button and then write or stamp the candidate’s name into the box provided.
The process of voting for a write-in candidate can be confusing and the judge-of-elections can not walk into the booth to help. Interestingly enough, neither the Democrats nor the Greens can put poll watchers in the election area as they are not on the ballot. The Republicans and Little will be trying to staff all divisions.
Honkala is not happy with not having eyes on the process. “If you have nothing to hide all of our tables should have all parties [present],” she said. “Election integrity is the most important thing; otherwise, we don’t have democracy.”
When the polls close, a grocery-receipt-like paper will print out with the totals and the write-in names. The local judge-of-elections (each division has one) along with the majority and minority inspectors will sign the sheets and put them in a vinyl pouch along with a cartridge with the electronic votes. A City Commissioner’s Office employee will bring the results bag to the office at Delaware and Spring Garden Streets. Typically a police officer will guard the results overnight.
All we’ll know on the night of Election Day is how many people voted for Lucinda Little and how many people pushed the write-in button. The Commissioners won’t count who got the write-in votes until Friday, March 24th.
“Since it is a state election, we total up the numbers and send them to the PA Department of State in Harrisburg for them to certify the winner,” said Al Schmidt, one of the three City Commissioners.
One issue with write-ins is misspelling, which is why candidates try to have voters use a stamp (Honkala’s team purchased hundreds of them). The City Commissioners will tally actual results up and not try figure out who the voter actually voted for. “What we do is certify how many votes were cast for each name or each permutation of the name,” Schmidt said. “Then we may have 27 for ‘E. Vazquez,’ 52 for ‘Emilio Vazquez,’ five for ‘Edgardo Vazquez.’” Then the State will combine them together or there will be legal action. What may happen is dispute over whether “E. Vazquez” is a vote for Emilio Vazquez or some other person named Edgardo Vazquez.
Yes, folks. This may not be over for a while. Of course, if Little outpaces all write-ins combined it will be known quickly that she won.
Every vote counts! If you live in the 197th be sure to cast your ballot at your local polling location. Follow Spirit News for continued coverage of this Special Election.