Tuesday's topsy-turvy special election for 197th upends politics as usual

A Democrat would have been the odds-on favorite to win a special election Tuesday in North Philadelphia’s 197th House District, despite the felony convictions of the last two Democrats who held that seat.

But the topsy-turvy nature of this election has spun more than one candidate off the ballot and upended decades of political norms in the district.

Eighty-five percent of the voters in the 197th are registered Democrats. But that party’s nominee, Emilio Vazquez, is not on the ballot and must run as a write-in candidate.

Just 5 percent of the voters are Republicans. Lucinda Little, that party’s nominee, is the only candidate on the ballot.

Green Party nominee Cheri Honkala is also running as a write-in candidate after missing the deadline by one day to file nomination paperwork.  That hasn’t stopped her from raising more than $88,000 in small-dollar donations from around the country.

Talk of 10 or more write-in candidates prompted the Pennsylvania Department of State to caution that the election results -- usually a quick tally in a low-turnout special election for a House seat -- may not be available Tuesday evening.

The 64,000 people who live in the district have gone unrepresented for eleven weeks, since State Rep. Leslie Acosta resigned on Jan. 3 after pleading guilty last year to a federal embezzlement charge from a prior job.

In 2014, Acosta defeated in the Democratic primary one-term State Rep. Jose “J.P.” Miranda after he had been charged in a scheme to use a no-show employee to funnel money to his sister. He pleaded guilty to a felony in 2015.

The Democratic Party’s first pick for a nominee, Frederick Ramirez, was removed from the ballot on Feb. 23 in a legal challenge after a judge ruled he did not live in the district.

The same judge on March 3 ruled that the party’s effort to replace Ramirez with Vazquez came after the deadline to list candidates on the ballot.

Vazquez, leader of the 43rd Ward and on leave from a job at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, predicted Monday that he would prevail.

“I have the backing of the party," he said. "I have the backing of the unions. I have a lot of people in my corner. I have all the ward leaders with me.”

Honkala, an anti-poverty activist who ran as the Green Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, raised $64,651 from Jan. 3, when the special election was called, to March 6, according to a campaign finance report filed March 10. That included 1,376 donations from across the country between $50 and $250. Many were in the amount of $19.70, to reflect the district’s number.

Honkala, whose website on Monday listed $88,577 in contributions, said she now has closer to 2,000 small-dollar donors.

“I think that people, they know me, they know my history, they know my work, they know my dedication to uplifting the lives of people who have struggled,” Honkala said.

Vazquez reported raising $1,425 as of March 6.

Little, a clinical research director for a firm that helps connect and staff doctors to pharmaceutical companies for clinical trials, raised $7,296 as of March 6, according to her March 10 report. That included $5,000 she loaned her campaign.

Little predicted the multiple write-in candidates will help her win Tuesday’s election.

The 197th District includes parts of Feltonville, Hunting Park, Glenwood, Fairhill, North Square and Francisville.

The polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.