Lucinda Little attends a Teamsters Protest of the Soda Tax at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on Philadelinquency covering the 197th District Special Election as most of you have seen.  This election would mostly join the long litany of other little special elections that trigger when state legislators are hauled away to jail: a few murmurings in the local press about whoever the Democratic City Committee picked as their replacement.  Maybe some exasperated half-hearted lamentations about how sucky the Democrat ward system is, and then it’s over.

This race is different.

This is the first time ever that a registered Republican could take a seat and represent a largely urban and poor district in all of Pennsylvania.   It’s not just a unique event in Pennsylvania, or in Philly, but the whole nation.

Who Is She?

Lucinda Little’s day job is is a clinical research director.  She lives in Feltonville near C and Wyoming with her husband Jeff.  Both were former Democrats.  Jeff’s father was Frank “Duke” Little, once the Democratic leader of the 42nd Ward.  Jeff is now the Republican ward leader in the same ward.   Jeff lives in the same house he was born in.   The couple have been rooted to the neighborhood like boat anchors and have lived through the transformation of their porchfront rowhouse community off the Boulevard into a vibrant Hispanic community that is primarily Dominican.

What Does She Want?

“Look around here, there’s not one empty storefront,” Lucinda says as I’m walking with her down Wyoming Avenue.  “Everywhere you turn there is a new business here and each business owner is someone who is trying to make it here and make a good living.  That’s what we all want.  I wish most of my district was like this.”

Much of Lucinda’s district doesn’t resemble the business corridors of Rising Sun, Wyoming or even the Times-Square style commercial concentration of Broad and Erie.   Much of it is plagued with abandonment.   As Hispanic communities have formed around some areas of the 197th District that had lost population, other areas of the 197th have remained depopulated and look more like ghost towns.

The African-American neighborhoods in the western areas of the 197th District are the areas that are the most severely blighted.   A few blocks exist with only one or two lonely houses, the rest have been knocked down.

We go into a store.  I translate in Spanish to the owner who Lucinda is and that she’s running for state rep and that she is against the Soda Tax.   Almost every business owner lights up with anger.   At one bodega I explained Lucinda’s soda tax position in Spanish and the store owner emptied months of pent-up frustration over the tax and what it has done to her business while holding up an aluminum bat she uses to protect herself behind the counter.

A bodega worker holds up a bat. “This is for the soda tax inspector when he comes in my store!” (Photo: Bob Stewart, Spirit Newspapers)

“This stupid tax is hurting us up here” Lucinda sighs in frustration.   “I mean, it’s making easy work for me talk to businesses and neighbors but look around.  Have you seen anyone here in favor of this tax?”

To put it in perspective, many low-income families treat their children with take-out pizza or have parties and a standard $0.99 2-litre orange soda is pretty-much a staple product most people buy at bodegas.   At one bodega off 3rd Street in Norris Square, the price has jumped to $2.19.

The owner of Pizza Point which is near Little’s house had his business disrupted and decrease since the soda tax went into effect.   “People were calling in large orders for parties and would add on the soda.  Then when we told them what the amount was they would cancel the entire thing and would call around to other stores trying to find one that hadn’t raised their prices yet.”  Pizza Point started getting the business back after customers realized everyone had raised their drink prices; customers just leave the drinks off their orders.

Needless to say, Lucinda Little signs immediately went up in the pizza store’s windows.

Could Little Actually Affect the Soda Tax From Harrisburg?

In actuality, she can.   Little is not the only one who can change the legality of the tax.  A coalition of 31 state representatives and senators from inside and outside the city, including notable Democrats such as Senator Tony Williams have signed on to an amicus brief arguing that the tax does not comply with the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Would Little be willing to push for legislation that directly kills the soda tax?

“Absolutely.  There is no doubt in my mind that this tax is not popular at all.  None of my neighbors want it.  No one I have talked to in their homes all throughout the district want it.   The mayor pushed this tax on us and did not take one look at anything the city spends its money on.  It didn’t look at DROP.  It didn’t look at the property tax it doesn’t collect.   They did none of those things.  They just slammed us with this.”

Little has more than just one reason why she wants the soda tax gone.

“We have a huge Coca-Cola plant at G and Erie.  A lot of people who work at that plant live in the 197th District.   If those jobs go away, is the mayor gonna come up here and replace those jobs?” Little asks while rolling her eyes.   “I don’t even think any of them who pushed for this tax even live here.  They couldn’t find my house without GPS.”

What Else Besides Soda?

Lucinda standing on infill in a Conrail easement with a Feltonville resident

I asked Lucinda why she decided to jump into this race.

“Look around you.”   At this moment she was talking to a resident on Bristol and N. Reese street in Feltonville, closer to Hunting Park.  Just a few blocks away is Tierra Columbiana, the neighborhood’s most-famous restaurant.  Just behind us is a large block of porchfront rowhomes.  In front of us is a strange gap where the street ended and simply turned to dirt.   A woman was pushing a cart through it, kicking up dust.

This block shares space with a deep ravine.  Down at the bottom of the ravine are traces of what was once a railroad stub that stretches on the maps from 5th Street all the way up to Fisher Avenue.   Parts of it have since been filled in.   Landfill had been poured into part of the ravine just high enough to make it possible to cross over the dirt to reach 5th Street where all the commercial stores are with steep and dangerous drop-offs to either side of the hill.

Mounds of trash and landfill reaching 4 stories high seem to be emblematic of the 197th District’s woes.  At one time, the city… no one is sure who… had promised that the railroad easement would get filled and converted to open space so that Bristol Street would be reconnected and residents could use it again.  “We could have a park or a playground here” another resident piped up from the street.

Little scowled.   “Did you know Mayor Kenney proposed a $90 million park down in Center City?  Why can’t we spend just a couple million to put in some dirt and grass here instead?”

Back in the car, Little unloaded.   “This really pisses me off.  This is why I ran.   All these stupid promises and not a damn thing ever gets done around here.  Everyone votes for the same clowns over and over and then they disappear.  Then they pop up like a bad habit and love to tell you they care, oh how do they care about you, then disappear again after the election.  This f—ing sucks.  Let’s drive.”

No Representation

The 197th District is the poorest in all of Pennsylvania and is among the most blighted of the city.  While areas like Norris Square and Feltonville are intact, dense and are the nicest neighborhoods in the district, many other parts of the district have emptied out of residents entirely.   People voted with their feet to leave the district for services that never came, cops who never responded, teachers who couldn’t help, things that never got done.   Residents got tired of waiting for an economy and improvement to their lives that never came, and left.

Areas towards the center of the district, particularly the blocks along Indiana Avenue are high crime corridors with a strong relation to the opioid crisis.  The areas of the district to the west have suffered years of the neighborhoods emptying out of residents and are rife with blocks that look like toothless gaps as homes were demolished with the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative program during the Mayor Street era.

Decline-era Philly has never really discontinued in the 197th District and it is beset with problems that are mostly blight-related.   During this entire time there has never been real political representation inside this district.   Sheriff Jewell Williams represented the 197th District (prior to its current map) for over eleven years.   He did not introduce one piece of legislation in the Pennsylvania House to help this district out in a way that you can see on the ground.

Later came Jose Miranda and Leslie Acosta.  Both of these state representatives have turned into felons.   Miranda was caught putting ghost employees on his staff payroll and Acosta is pleading guilty in an FBI probe of 19th Ward Leader Carlos Matos.   Neither of these two people ever put forward legislation to do a thing to improve this district that you can see on the ground, either.

Butt Warmers

The current chaos that’s going on with the 197th District Special Election skips both the forest and the trees.   A State Representative’s job is to be a thorn in the ass of City Hall; to help connect residents to services that are available to them and also push legislation and vote on legislation that is in the best interests of their district and the people who live there.   That has not been done and has never been done in the 197th District no matter which way the maps were drawn for the last 30 some-odd years.  Democrats have held this area of the City for at least 50 years.

What does the community have to show for it?  Blighted half-collapsed buildings, few new parks, people moving out because of crime and lack of services and these days a new deeply-regressive soda tax pushed by people living close to Center City that is giving stomach -upset to minority business owners all across the district and is slamming the poorest households of the city.   That’s the reward that the community got for voting this way for so long.

Lucinda Little wants a chance to try something different and see if she can do a better job than Sheriff Williams, Jose Miranda or Leslie Acosta did when they held the seat.

“I want everyone who has a stake in this community to fight for it.  Not just me.  I’ll accept help from just about anyone.   I just want to see the 197th District get better.” Little then cracks a wry smile.  “Unlike Freddie Ramirez I actually live here.”

Frederick Ramirez was the Democratic candidate on Tuesday’s ballot but was kicked off for not living in the 197th District.

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If you haven’t been paying attention to this story, you should.   It has everything that’s shitty about Philly politics all in one story, and it comes to a head this week:

  • Two felons
  • Fakers in suits and pantsuits
  • In-court drama
  • Out-of-court drama
  • Mental health clinics, but sadly nobody is a patient
  • All the candidates running for office except for 1 is a write-in
  • The one candidate on the ballot is a REPUBLICAN 😵
  • An election-day that’s likely to be filled with more drama
  • An election-eve vote counting scenario that is potentially going to have even more drama

Sadly, the only thing missing in this telenovela are hot guys with washboard abs who can’t keep their clothes on.  I don’t think there’s been a more ridiculous race for a Pennsylvania State Representative seat as long as I have lived in PA, much less as long as I’ve been on this planet.

This photo (below) was passed on to me showing that there is yet another write-in candidate who might have thrown his hat, or MSPaint-produced campaign banner, and gotten into the anything-can-happen race to replace disgraced state representative Leslie Acosta.

Why This Shitshow Started in The First Place

Long story short, and that’s very hard with this story so you’ll just have to bear with me here:  Leslie Acosta agreed to plead guilty in a conspiracy to commit money laundering charge related to a federal prosecution of Renee Tartaglione and Carlos Matos.  If those names sound familiar it’s because Carlos Matos is a former Federal felon but also a long-time Democratic ward leader in the 197th District who is well-known in Kensington.  Matos and Tartaglione are both being charged by the US Attorney over a Pennsylvania Medicaid billing scandal in relation to the Juniata Mental Health Center.  Leslie Acosta used to work there.  Los Federales accused Acosta of cashing checks out of the business and giving the proceeds to Tartaglione.  The fraud trial is expected to start this coming May.

Leslie Acosta kept the plea deal secret and didn’t tell anyone about it.   Unfortunately for her, the Pennsylvania Constitution does not allow anyone to sit in a public office who has a felony conviction.  Since her plea deal guarantees she’s going to get one on her record, that means she would have no choice but to step aside or she would be forced out of Harrisburg by the legislature who would eject her.   Acosta ran for re-election unopposed and won.   But after that, word finally got out about her plea deal.  Gov. Wolf begged Acosta to step aside but she refused.   Republicans in Harrisburg watching from afar proceeded to formally eject Acosta from the state capitol.  That forced her hand and she bowed out.   The legislature chose this coming Tuesday, March 21 to select a replacement for the district.

In a normal world, few if any voters turn up, nobody knows who the candidates are to fill-in the vacancy and the local Democratic machine usually installs some protegé of another politician to fill the role.   But in Planet Philadelphia things have gone wrong.  So. Horribly. Wrong.

He Doesn’t Live Here

Somehow the Democratic party in Philly thought it would be a good idea to allow a soon-to-be felon to help decide who her successor would be.  Leslie Acosta lobbied for a guy named Frederick Ramirez to replace her.   This photo of where Leslie Acosta’s state rep office is located tells you a lot about her chosen replacement:

Ahh yeah.   There’s Leslie Acosta’s office with her sign up on the 2nd floor and below her sign is a sign for another pill hut.  Er, sorry… did I say “pill hut?”  I meant to say “yet another mental health resource center.”    Because, you know, living in the 197th District with its shitty political representation problems can cause you to have a mental break and you might need these types of services to make sense of it all.

If you’ve ever spent enough time in the barrio you’ll start to wonder why there are so many mental health resource centers around.  I am sure it won’t surprise you at all that Frederick Ramirez also runs mental health clinics.   What will surprise you is that Fred Ramirez doesn’t actually live in the 197th District.

That pesky PA Constitution demands that you live next to the poor schmucks you want to represent in the state house.  Pennsylvania politicos have never taken that rule seriously since proving residency in a court challenge is quite difficult.   But it wasn’t difficult with Freddie Ramirez.   The Republican City Committee took Ramirez to court since in this election they did put a candidate on the ballot, Lucinda Little.   Republicans did not think it was fair that Ramirez was using a house he had converted to a storage locker around the corner from one of his clinics was sufficient for residency, especially so since Ramirez is listed in the Bristol, PA phonebook and has been a member of the Bristol rotary club for a long time.

On the witness stand, Ramirez stated that he does reside in the city–a lot.   Just not always at his house in the 197th District.   He testified that when he’s in town he stays at his daughter’s house.   The trouble with his answer there is that his daughter lives in Roxborough, which is not a neighborhood that’s inside the 197th District.   This testimony combined with 24 months of water bills showing almost no usage led Commonwealth Court judge Anne Covey to conclude that Ramirez doesn’t live here and therefore is disqualified from being a candidate on the ballot.

It also looks like someone didn’t take kindly to that news…

Threat received by Republican candidate Lucinda Little at her home (Photo: The Spirit of the Riverwards)

Too Late, Too Bad

Judge Covey’s decision threw Democrats into disarray.   What now?

After a fractious meeting at Philadelphia Democratic City Committee headquarters on a Saturday afternoon the seven ward leaders who screwed up their nomination of Ramirez then decided to put forward one of their own: Emilio Vazquez, a PPA employee.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Vazquez as a candidate.  He lives in the district and he has a steady job.   He doesn’t have a platform or a plan for the district but that’s not a problem–the last two occupants of the 197th state rep seat didn’t either.  Sheriff Jewell Williams who is also one of the ward leaders of the district held this state rep seat for eleven years and did not write one solid piece of legislation to help the district out that entire time.   Democrats just needed a “butt-warmer”, that’s it.

The problem with Democrats putting Vazquez forward as a candidate is that his papers were filed way past the deadline to run as a candidate.   When the Republicans challenged Ramirez on his candidacy there was still over a week left to swap his name out and replace him with a different candidate.  The lockout expired during the course of the trial to kick Ramirez off the ballot.  Once that deadline passed, the state elections board would not accept any more filings.   The City Commissioner’s office followed-up with a statement that it had already started printing plates for the voting machines and was busy programming them–it’s too late to adapt the voting machines to a last-second change.

Democrats headed back to court anyway, this time praying for a miracle and it didn’t get it.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, possibly fearing future ramifications if it allowed election challenges to go on after voting machines were being set-up, threw out the appeal with a one-sentence denial order.

For the first time ever the Democratic party is forced to campaign for a seat they’ve held for over 50 years.

Progressives Can’t Get Their Shit Together Either

Besides Democrat vs. Republican court battles there was another trip to court by Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala.   Honkala didn’t get her paperwork filed correctly by the deadline and was denied a button on the voting machine.

Had everything proceeded normally Honkala would have not gotten any attention at all from local progressives over this state rep seat.  But thanks to Republicans knocking the Democrat off the ballot machine–not having that paperwork filed suddenly mattered.  A lot.

Sensing the possibility that there could be a race with no Democrat on the voting machine, Honkala and the Greens took their case to the PA Supreme Court.  They were shot down.

The Philly VOICE threw together this glowing-profile of Honkala.   It was only last year that local media only took interest in her for holding a fart-in at the DNC to get some local human-interest clicks.  [That’s a nice way of saying that most local media only considered Honkala to be a joke]

Suddenly all that has to be brushed aside because Holy Jesus there’s only a Republican on the voting machine and no one else.  Egads!

At community meetings Honkala has vowed to turn her state rep office into a homeless shelter if she’s elected.   Those will be the 6 luckiest people in the 197th District.   So if you’re homeless be sure to turn up to vote–you may win a bed!

More Court Drama Is Expected

If you think just the fight over the ballot was bad, I fully-expect there will be another battle over what happens on Election Day and later-on that evening when the votes are actually counted up.  Given that the electorate is 85% registered Democrats, the expected turnout on Tuesday will be super low and the chance of anyone winning this is the easiest it’s ever been a whole smattering of write-in candidates have surfaced.

First off: Norris Square is infamous for Election Day shenanigans.   Right around from Senator Christine Tartaglione’s house (and inside the 197th District) is a polling station where four election workers were charged and arrested for elections fraud.   This area has also been known for fistfights that have occurred outside polling stations and heavy amounts of electioneering with campaign workers campaigning inside polling stations and Spanish-speaking interpreters being accused of guiding voters hands to “preferred” candidates.   Mind you, this takes place in an area of the city where Democrats aren’t used to running with any opposition from other parties.  This crap happens when there’s Democrats challenging each other.

The second and much more likely source of court drama will be the outcome of write-in voting.   There are several scenarios that can happen in this special election:

Republican Lucinda Little could amass more votes than the total number of write-ins.  In which case, the election is pretty-much wrapped-up unless the break-down of the write-in candidates reveals one of the write-in candidates comes within a few votes shy of beating Little.

A write-in avalanche swamps the amount of votes for Little and one of the write-in candidates or more top Little’s vote tally, in which case everyone goes back to court to scrutinize the write-in tapes.

Or, and this is equally likely: a complete total shit show where Little and one or more of the write-ins amass close vote totals and it turns a three-way court battle where Little and two of the write-in candidates challenge opposing write-in votes.

Last but not least there’s one more lawsuit threat in the works.  Write-in candidate Orlando Acosta (no relation to Leslie) has vowed to challenge the legitimacy of the entire special election.  He ran as a write-in candidate when Leslie Acosta was originally up for re-election.   He contends that Leslie Acosta’s election was invalid at the time she ran therefore he should have been the declared-winner.  Because the PA Supreme Court did not weigh in on his petition he surmises that because they have weighed in on three other candidates (Cheri Honkala, Freddie Ramirez, Emilio Vazquez) they will re-visit Leslie Acosta’s re-election race.

No Democrat Poll Watchers Allowed

Oh yes, one more thing–and this is also causing lots of stomach cramps with the Democratic City Committee:   the City Commissioners has blocked registered Democrats from getting poll watcher certificates.   The reason: there is no Democratic candidate on the voting machines.   This means the only people allowed in a polling place this coming Tuesday are the election workers themselves, a Spanish-speaking interpreter and any Republican poll watcher holding a valid poll watcher certificate.

Poll watchers monitor for election law violations and report those up to the District Attorney’s office and their local party organization so lawyers can get engaged whenever there is any polling place shenanigans going on.

The Democratic City Committee went back to court to challenge this so they could get their poll watchers in and this too was shot down.

In total there have been 5 separate lawsuits over this one state rep seat.

This is the craziest local election ever, right?

Write-In Mania

Some folks have estimated there are as many as 30 different write-ins but I can tell you the confirmed total is really 6.    Here’s their profiles:

Edward Lloyd

Here’s his Facebook.

Edward Lloyd his own words:

My name is Edward Lloyd a long time and dedicated City and State Elected Committeeman 2nd and 3rd Senatorial Districts 42nd for 8 years, City Committeeman for 26 years and former Ward Chairman of the 42nd Ward, 6th and 21st Divisions some of you may know me and a few of you may have heard of me.

I still remember the words of my father Edward Lloyd, Sr.  My father said, “Son, I am a servant of the people.  An opportunity to help people means everything to me.”  When I would hear comments like these, it would only strengthen my resolve to follow in his footsteps in politics.  I knew at an early age watching my father that hard work paid off.  I shocked the so-called naysayers in 2009 when I won as a write in for Pennsylvania Democratic Executive State Committee serving the 2nd Senatorial District. This was a historic victory.  Now I’m beginning another historic campaign.  And I need you to be part of it.  I, respectfully and graciously ask for your support as the Write-In Candidate since the nominated candidate was recently removed by court order.

Presently, the Democrats cannot afford to lose this seat to the Republicans or any other party.  I have the easiest name as a Write-In “Ed Lloyd” and I have been somewhat successful in previous elections in getting voters to Write me.  In the past, I acquired the most Write-In Votes, but unfortunately I did not win enough votes to beat the incumbent. In spite of this, I never gave up fighting to represent the people in the 197th District, but with your support as the –Committeemen/Committeewomen in the 197th — Together” we can prevent losing this seat to the Republicans.  I am prepared to fight for this seat in the special election on March 21, 2017.  I am asking for your help.  Together we can win and I will not let you down.  All I am asking you for is an opportunity to serve the people.

Orlando Acosta

Here’s his Facebook.

Orlando Acosta is a perennial candidate for the 197th District.  He ran against Leslie Acosta (no relation).  After it was learned that she had secretly pled guilty to conspiracy for money laundering, Acosta filed a challenge in Commonwealth Court to have Leslie Acosta’s re-election victory invalidated.   Orlando Acosta was a write-in candidate last year and claimed in his suit that because Acosta’s candidacy was void, he should have won the state representative seat.

He has been a vocal critic of Leslie Acosta’s time serving as the 197th District state representative.

Cheri Honkala

Here’s her Facebook

Cheri Honkala is arguably the most famous of Philly’s perennial political candidates, second only to T. Milton Street, Sr.  She’s the leader for the Poor People’s Human Enonomic Rights Campaign.  An activist for over three decades, Cheri is well-known in Kensington for riding a horse at the famous intersection of K&A: Kensington and Allegheny Avenues when she ran for sheriff.

She’s also protested the lavish City expenditures put on the Pope visit by erecting a tent city and hosting a “fart-in” protest at the DNC.

While she’s the member of the Green Party and their endorsed candidate for this race, her name won’t appear on the ballot.  Honkala says the reason why is that they filed “one paper one day late” at the Pennsylvania Department of State.  For that she’s been excluded from the ballot on Mar 21.

Juan Rodriguez

Here’s his Facebook.

Probably one of the more esoteric perennial candidates out there is Juan Rodriguez, self-styled founder of “The Legend Foundation” which is a bootstrap community organization that does cleanups and helping out people in need.

He’s run for mayor in the past.

Emilio Vazquez

Here’s his Facebook.

Emilio Vazquez is the Democratic pick for the 197th District.  He’s an auditor at the Philadelphia Parking Authority and had to take a furlough from his job.

Vazquez doesn’t have a platform or anything other than “he’s a Democrat,”which in this district is the functional equivalent of saying “I breathe oxygen and convert it to carbon dioxide.”

We’re all willing to bet just about everyone running as a write-in except Honkala is also a Democrat or will behave like one when elected, so if anyone had any suspicions that an anti-immigration activist from the Bible Belt were somehow in this race, you’d have a greater chance of encountering the Chupacabra.

The district itself is 85% Democrat and even the Republican candidate on the machine was a Democrat for decades.

If you elect Vazquez, the Parking Authority CEO Clarena Tolson (we all love her) will have to find a 20-something Democrat who has some relationship to a Democratic ward leader to replace him with.  Maybe Vazquez will pick his successor like Acosta did?

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Welp.  This didn’t take a mind reader to predict.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has now ruled in a per curiam order in the last hour that Lucinda Little will be the only candidate on the ballot in the 197th District election.  Democrats went to court hoping the court would split on partisan lines and add to the ballot Emilio Vazquez, a PPA employee after ward-selected candidate Fred Ramirez was thrown off the ballot for not living in the 197th District.   Democrats have been in chaos ever since Republicans challenged Ramirez on his residency and was disqualified.

As Little is a Republican, this means there will be no Democrat listed on the ballot for the May 21 special election to replace disgraced former state representative Leslie Acosta.   There are no other candidates on the ballot.

Some local unions have already sensed the likely outcome of the special election and are placing bets.  The International Association of Firefighers Local 22 endorsed Lucinda Little this week.

(If you are new to this drama and are totally confused how this happened, turn here)

Given the situation with this special election and that the 197th District is 85% Democratic in voter registration, there are six and possibly even more write-in candidates hoping to have a crack at the state rep seat.

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Cue the dramatic music.  This soap opera just took another turn.

Commonwealth Court rejected the appeal to put Democratic candidate Emilio Vazquez on the ballot for the 197th legislative district.   Vazquez will now have 2 weeks to execute a write-in campaign.

The date of the special election?  March 21.

The only person on the ballot is Republican Lucinda Little.

Looking for write-in candidates?  Here they are.

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