As The 197th Turns: The Official Timeline
Spirit News has been covering the drama-filled special election for the 197th Legislative District for the past few months. The story has been long and with no shortage of twists and turns. To help bring readers up to speed, here’s a complete timeline of events that have made up this season of “As the 197th Turns.”
The Start of a Trend?
State Rep. Jose P. “J.P.” Miranda pleads guilty to false swearing and an elections violation. The Daily News reported that Miranda had won an election for the 197th district in Fall 2012, and was set to serve two terms.
Assistant District Attorney Frank Fina testified that Miranda was told by the state’s House Democratic Caucus that his sister, Michelle Wilson, could not serve as his chief of staff. Miranda, however, hired Timothy Duckett, who would funnel money to Wilson.
Wilson’s attorney, Robert Mozenter, told reporters at the hearing that there was no “clear indication” wilson knew of a deal between Miranda and Duckett, the Daily News reported.
Leslie Acosta Convicted of Role in Embezzlement Scheme
Trouble in the 197th district continued when the Inquirer reported that former state Rep. Leslie Acosta was convicted last March of conspiring to commit money laundering involving her former boss at a Fairhill mental health clinic.
U.S. Representative Robert Brady told the Inquirer at the time he didn’t know about the conviction. The casefile was unsealed the day Acosta pleaded guilty, but didn’t garner attention until the Inquirer’s report. Acosta beat J.P. Miranda in a 2014 primary as Miranda was battling his own felony charges.
According to the Inquirer, Acosta would accept money while working at the clinic, but for work she never performed. She would then send the money to her boss.
Acosta did not intend to step down from her post in the 197th at the time of the Inquirer’s report, and both Republican and Democratic state leaders denied comment. One former federal prosecutor, L. George Parry, was surprised at the news.
“I’m stunned,” Parry told the Inquirer. “The public is entitled to know what’s going on with their elected officials. It has to be one very, very powerful reason to keep something like this under seal.”
Acosta Resigns from 197th District
Months after the Inquirer reported Acosta was convicted, the newspaper followed up with a report that Acosta was resigning.
Acosta submitted her letter of resignation to House Speaker Mike Turzai in mid-December, the Inquirer reported. She did not explain why she was resigning.
Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Representative Robert Brady had called on Acosta to resign in prior months, and several of her colleagues told her she would be blocked from her seat once the new legislative season started in 2017.
Details of a special election emerged, with Brady telling the Inquirer he lets the ward leaders in the 197th district determine who what Democratic candidates should be chosen—and at this point, Noelia Diaz and Freddy Ramirez were two names that popped up.
Acosta selects Freddy Ramirez as Her Replacement
Acosta held a meeting with roughly 30 committee members and important political figures from her district in late December. Philadelphia Weekly reported that Leslie announced her endorsement of Freddy Ramirez to replace her as state representative for the 197th district.
Ramirez told Democratic leaders at the meeting that he expressed interest in the position to U.S. Representative Robert Brady, who is also the chair of the city’s Democratic party.
Emilio Vasquez, a ward leader that represents a third of its divisions, also received support from Brady to pursue the seat. He also reportedly supported Noelia Diaz for the seat, opposing Ramirez.
Patrick Christmas, policy program manager at the watchdog group Committee of Safety, criticized the city’s special elections process.
“Any political party seeking to build trust among its members and legitimacy in its nomination of candidates should be open, inclusive and democratic,” Christmas told Philadelphia Weekly. “This is not the way we do special elections in Philly, and that’s a problem.”
Freddy Ramirez Nominated as Democrat in Special Election
Despite opposition in December, party leaders in the 197th ward selected Freddy Ramirez to run in the special election to replace former state representative Leslie Acosta.
Philadelphia Weekly reported in late January that Speaker Mike Turzai had also set a special-election date of March 21. Joe DeFelice, president of the city’s Republican party, said Lucinda Little, the Republican pick for the selection, should be given a fair shot.
“The last two Democratic state representatives in this district have had to resign from office,” DeFelice told Philadelphia Weekly. “Obviously, when it comes to general elections, the [Philly GOP] has to pick and choose its battles. But this [special election] is the only game in town that day, and we’re going to try to win it.”
The report also mentioned the possibility of a possible independent candidate. Cheri Honkala, a Green Party candidate, ended up running in March.
But Does Ramirez Even Live in the District?
In a somewhat surprising ballot-removal petition hearing, Freddy Ramirez’s age was called into question, as records show that he was either born in 1947 or 1957.
Spirit News, however, also learned that Ramirez might not live in the 197th district. State law dictates that state representatives must live in the districts they serve.
Ilbana Cruz, who lives across the street from where Ramirez claimed to live, said she thought “nobody lived” at that address, which is 430 W. Annsbury St.
Ramirez’ attorney, Adam Bonin, said Cruz could not be watching this 24/7, but Cruz disagreed: “Ever since I got shot I pay attention,” Cruz testified. “It’s like a phobia of mine.”
Judge Anne Covey stated to Ramirez that she wanted all paperwork filed by February 13 so she could issue a decision.
Nope, Freddy Lives Elsewhere
According to election rules, a State Rep. must reside in the district they represent for at least one year. Following his residency hearing, the court concluded that Ramirez did not live in the 197th District and was removed from the ballot. Ramirez did not appeal the decision, but the Democratic City Committee did look to appeal in order to place a candidate on the ballot.
Dems Select PPA Employee Emilio Vazquez As Their Candidate
Following the Ramirez decision, the Democrats selected Emilio Vazquez, an employee at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, as their candidate. But according to a PPA spokesman, Parking Authority employees are required to resign or take a leave of absence before they become candidates for public office.
The Democrats attempt to get Vasquez on the Ballot was rejected by the Pennsylvania Department of State because it was filed past the deadline, which led the Democrats to Commonwealth Court to try to get their new candidate onto the ballot.
The Democrats inability to get a candidate on the ballot meant that Republican nominee Lucinda Little would be the only major party candidate on the ballot in the 197th District — a district where voter registration is 85 percent Democratic, 5 percent Republican, and 10 percent independent or smaller political parties.
The Green Party Can’t Get Their Candidate on the Ballot Either
Green Party nominee Cheri Honkala also found difficulty trying to get on the ballot. A Commonwealth Court ruling found that she was ineligible to be placed on the ballot because her party submitted her nomination one day after the deadline.
Honkala appealed the Commonwealth Court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, but vowed to continue with a write-in campaign if that was necessary.
“It’s unfair to the voters of the 197th district that I got knocked off the ballot because of a state agency’s carelessness,” Honkala said in a statement. “Regardless, I’m moving forward with an aggressive write-in campaign because this district needs an advocate who knows these communities and has a decades-long record of fighting for poor and working class persons.”
Lucinda Little Receives Written Threats at Her Home
Lucinda Little, the Republican candidate for 197th Legislative District, woke up one morning to a threat in her mailbox. The note read: “You will pay bitch for Fred.” In addition to breaking grammar rules, it’s illegal to threaten someone, so Little’s husband called the police and filed a report.
The note seems to allude to Fred Ramirez, the candidate who was removed from the ballot by Judge Ann Covey after losing a residency challenge. “I had nothing to do with Fred Ramirez getting removed from the ballot,” Little said said. “I just happened to be the opponent.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board Endorses Little for the 197th:
The Inquirer Editorial Board jointly interviewed both Little and Honkala. The city’s paper of record reported that neither candidate seemed to have a firm grasp of a legislator’s job, but that Little “better articulated the office’s requirements and potential.” In her interview, Little expressed her willingness to raise school funding, increase the minimum wage, and oppose a bill that would punish Philadelphia for acting as a sanctuary city.
Election Preview: Decision Day Draws Near For Special Election Chock Full of Residency Hearings, Felonies, Write-In Candidates, Threats, Vandalism and PA Supreme Court Rulings
As Election Day approached, Little remained the only name officially on the ballot. Meanwhile the Democrats and Greens launched write-in campaigns in the neighborhood.
Sitting in her modest home, Little told Spirit News that she’s “not even a politician,” let alone a Republican or a Democrat. If she ends up in Harrisburg, “everyone is a potential all… Democrats, Republicans, the polka-dot party.”
Honkala, a well known West Kensington activist, 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 questioned the legitimacy of that process and says that she was assured by officials before the deadline that all was in order. “I was an election monitor in El Salvador and in Venezuela,” Honkala told Spirit News. “What happens in this city makes the corruption look like nothing in those countries.”
Vazquez did not return calls to Spirit News. The only ward leader who reached for comment said she will support the Party-backed write-in no matter who it is. She also wouldn’t allow us to print her name. When asked if she thought Emilio Vazquez was who she would back, the ward leader repeated, “I will support the Party-backed candidate.” Regarding operating a write-in campaign, she said, “We just gotta work it.”
Rules? Who needs rules? Election day coverage:
Did Electioneering Steal a State Rep Seat?
At an election day press conference, Green Party Candidate Cheri Honkala explained how she had trouble voting in the special election. She told Spirit News, “Never did I dream that I would wake up this morning with my children, walk down Hancock Street, and go into my voting booth, and not be able to vote.”
According to representatives from Honkala’s campaign, improper procedures at the polling place and issues of voter intimidation were reported almost as soon as the polls opened. Even Honkala herself had trouble voting at her local polling place. Honkala issued the following statement in a press release.
The local Republican Party volunteers verified the Green Party accounts. Some, like John Ramos, a registered poll watcher, even helped voters understand how they could vote for Honkala. “Look, that is their choice, they have that right,” he said.
Joe DeFelice, head of the Philly GOP, addressed the volunteers at the Firefighters’ union hall after the result they did not want came in. “Obviously [what] we saw today in the field, it was egregious, we knew it was gonna be egregious,” DeFelice said. “When you have the table workers working as your campaign workers, that’s a problem. When they’re the ones handing out the stamps and physically doing the write-ins for you that’s a problem.”
The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) Opens Election Fraud Taskforce to Investigate Election
According to the AGO, on the day of the election, the Task Force received approximately fifty calls to its hotline and responded to several dozen allegations of illegal activity at polling places across the district. Following the election results, the Election Fraud Task Force in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into the Special Election in the 197th Legislative District.
City Commissioners Name Vazquez Winner of 197th
Lucinda Little, the only candidate on the ballot, received only 198 votes in the district compared to 2483 total write in votes. At a public count, the three City Commissioners found Vazquez had 1964 votes compared to Honkala’s 280. Vasquez was named the winner of the 197th Special Election.
PA House Republicans Express Their Concern
Philadelphia Reps. John Taylor and Martina White joined PA House GOP leaders in expressing concern over allegations and photos of election fraud in the special election in the 197th Legislative District in Philadelphia. In their presentation, Reps. Taylor and White use Spirit News tweets and reporting to depict the allegations.
State AG Joins in Investigation of Election Results
Following in the footsteps of the City’s AGO, Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, announced that he would join the investigation into the special election’s results. Shapiro told CBS3 that the offices “will ultimately make a charging determination based on evidence.” Meanwhile, Honkala prepared to file a federal suit challenging the results.
Did Democracy Die in Philly After the 197th Special Election?
After witnessing voter fraud and intimidation tactics first-hand, our reporter Bob Stewart — a seasoned judge of elections in his own neighborhood — penned this op-ed outlining what he saw as a deathblow for American Democracy. He suggests that it may be time to “throw a red flag” in this election and challenge the results.
Newly Aligned “RepubliGreens” File Federal Lawsuit for 197th
Lawyers for the the Green Party and Republican Party filed suit seeking to void the results of the special election in the 197th state legislative district. The unlikely alliance between Greens and Republicans — they’ve come to call themselves “RepubliGreens” — are seeking a new election within 90 days, Vazquez not being seated and unspecified damages.