Defying long odds, a GOP candidate rises in North Philly

Lucinda Little a Republican, is the only candidate on the ballot for North Philly’s 197th District seat.

Lucinda Little knows she has a very good shot at beating very long odds.

The Republican is the only candidate on the ballot in the March 21 special election to fill the overwhelmingly Democratic state House’s 197th District seat in North Philadelphia.

She benefited from Democratic squabbling in the district and court rulings that removed the first Democratic nominee, Frederick Ramirez, from the ballot for not living in the district and then prevented a replacement candidate, Emilio Vazquez, from taking his place.

Little stresses, when all that comes up, that she was the only candidate to follow the rules to get on the ballot. A Green Party candidate, Cheri Honkala, was also kept off the ballot for missing a deadline to file nomination papers.

Still, Little takes nothing for granted.

“Listen, this fight’s not over yet,” she said last week while pointing out that she is going door-to-door in the district to talk up her candidacy. “I don’t think by any means that this is over with. I don’t think it’s in the bag. We’re putting up a fight.”

Several people, including Honkala and Vazquez, are planning “write-in” campaigns. In what is anticipated to be a low-turnout election, that could be further good news for Little if multiple write-in efforts split the vote.

The 48-year-old is a clinical research director, running a consortium founded by three plastic surgeons that helps connect and staff doctors and pharmaceutical companies for clinical trials.

She is also a former Democrat, having left the party about a decade ago over frustrations about what she sees as an economic decline in the district, which includes her Feltonville neighborhood, along with Hunting Park, Glenwood, Fairhill, North Square, and Francisville.

Little says corruption also helped drive her away from the Democrats. The seat is open because State Rep. Leslie Acosta stepped down Jan. 3 after pleading guilty to a federal embezzlement charge last year. Acosta had replaced State Rep. Jose “J.P.” Miranda, who also stepped down after a felony conviction.

“I feel we’ve been underrepresented,” Little said. “We’ve been poorly represented for the last four years.”

Little is married to Jeffrey Little, Republican leader of the 42nd Ward.  Her late father-in-law, Frank “Duke” Little, was once the Democratic leader of the 42nd Ward and president judge of Philadelphia’s Traffic Court.

A victory for Little would not change much in the balance of power in the 203-member House, where Republicans hold 121 seats.

But the ballot controversy has become a rhetorical shooting war between the state’s Democratic and Republican Parties.

“We now have an opportunity to shock Philadelphia’s Democratic machine because of their sheer incompetence and corruption,” the Republican Party declared in a March 3 fund-raising pitch.

“Trump’s Republican Party is up to its old tricks in the 197th legislative district, but with your help, we can stop them,” the Democratic Party retorted in its own fund-raising pitch Thursday.

Little responds carefully when asked about the linkage to President Trump, calling his election “not relevant” to the 197th District. She was a supporter in 2016 of Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican defeated by Trump in the primaries.

“Given the options I had, I did vote for Trump,” Little said of the general election. “Was he the person I wanted? No.”

Little does not hesitate to speak out when her positions on political issues or pending legislation do not match up with those of her party. She is also open and frank when she needs to know more about an issue before declaring a position.

A few examples:

The state House is set to consider legislation that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. Little, citing a miscarriage she had at 20 weeks, said she would vote in favor of that measure.

“I had to go through labor,” she said of the lost child. “She was a little girl and she was eight ounces.”

Little said she would not support legislation pushed by State Rep. Martina White, a Republican from Northeast Philadelphia, to strip the city of state funding for being a “sanctuary city.”

Mayor Kenney has refused to have the city detain without a federal warrant people who entered this country illegally when they are due to be released from the city’s prison system.

The 197th District is 53.5 percent Latino, which Little said factors into her position.

“We are a melting pot,” she said. “The whole district is diverse. I don’t like the word illegal. I say undocumented. We need to help them to become legal, to become documented.”

Little also rejects the “paycheck protection” legislation that would prohibit the state from collecting state union dues through payroll deductions, a measure that would weaken unions while not saving much money for the state.

“I am pro-union,” Little said.

Little opposes the tax on sweetened beverages, championed by Kenney last year as a way to fund recreation center renovations and pre-K education. If elected, Little said, she would push for state legislation to repeal that tax.

The 197th District election would not be the first time in recent history that Republicans, outnumbered by Democrats 7-1 in Philadelphia voter registration, have taken advantage of political turmoil among their rivals.

In a March 2015 special election, White became the first Republican in a quarter-century to win an open seat in a state House district in the city. White’s victory was aided by infighting among Democrats in the 170th District, which covers Bustleton, Somerton, and Parkwood.

But unlike the 197th District, where Democrats make up 85 percent of the voters and Republicans are just 5 percent, the 170th District is more competitive. Republicans there are outnumbered by only 2-1.

White went on to win a full two-year term in that district last November.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, has said his party will take back the seat in the 2018 election if Little prevails in the special election.

Until then, Little vows to keep fighting.

“When it gets going, I have a big mouth,” she said. “I’m stubborn. And I’m Greek. We tend to talk very loud when we need to.”