Cheri Honkala: Once an Outlaw, Now an Enforcer?

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 50 | Posted Mar. 23, 2011

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It's hard to imagine a 48-year-old woman who’s been arrested more than 200 times becoming Philadelphia’s new sheriff. Disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer are just a few of the charges Cheri Honkala’s faced while promoting welfare rights. But that’s what Philly’s most infamous embodiment of grass-roots guerilla protestdom, plans to do. And while Honkala’s outlaw days may be through, her law enforcement years may be just beginning.

“Building a large, multi-racial movement to end poverty … means we have to enter into the political arena,” Honkala says. “Because we’re pretty much going to have to wait until we’re dead if we want to see Democrats develop any kind of a backbone.”

If elected, Honkala says she won’t close the corruption-ridden office, as one of her Democratic opponents, John Kromer, plans to do. She says she’ll do one better: Work with City Council and the city’s poor to change the rules. After freezing foreclosures, Honkala plans on coming up with almost any idea imaginable to put an end to tossing families out of their homes. That includes: turning sheriff’s deputies into glorified social workers; setting up community service work, which would allow those at risk of foreclosure to work off their debt; giving control of abandoned buildings to community-developed land trusts; turning over confiscated homes to drug and alcohol rehabilitation services and creating employment for those at risk of losing their homes.

“I think we can come up with anything other than what we do now,” she says. “It’s wrong to throw people out ... Period.”

The whole thing is summed up nicely in her campaign slogan: “Keeping families in their homes.”

The slogan is a personal one to Honkala, who spent her childhood without a home or a family. Born in Minneapolis, Minn., Honkala spent her youth in and out of juvenile detention facilities after her mother was deemed an unfit parent. She got pregnant at 16 and began living out of a car. She managed to earn a high school diploma and came to Philadelphia a few years later to raise her son, actor Mark Webber, dedicating her life to advocacy on behalf of the working poor and those on welfare. She’s led hundreds of protests and has gained a huge following of volunteers throughout the city, including recently released mob boss “Skinny” Joey Merlino during the mid-’90s, who offered to buy turkeys and help her hand them out to the homeless.

When money for her poverty programs dried up over the years, she worked on and off as an exotic dancer, putting all her tips back into her nonprofit, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. “I’ve had to work in the sex industry, actually, until very recently,” she says.

But at least she had a cause. “The money she made from doing that wasn’t just money to build her organization, but a movement to end poverty,” says Tara Colon, a formerly homeless mother who’s volunteering on Honkala’s campaign. “She’s taught us that being poor isn’t something to be ashamed of … She’s done things that are looked upon as immoral, but she makes them moral choices by saying, ‘Everything around me is wrong. It’s wrong that children are hungry and it’s wrong that children are homeless.’”

Honkala has been running the KWRU since 1991, mostly out of rowhouse offices in the Badlands, helping Kensington’s poor and homeless keep their possessions and, in extreme cases, illegally take over vacant properties. In 1997, she helped begin a second nonprofit, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a national organization and direct response to Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform legislation, which she and others claimed hurt welfare recipients. She was profiled in David Zucchino’s 1997 book The Myth of the Welfare Queen, publicizing her North Philadelphia activism, which included building tent cities and taking over vacant HUD buildings. Some of her arrests in the ’90s were actually arranged by Kromer, then-Director of Housing under former Mayor Ed Rendell. She staged several protests outside Kromer’s residences while he worked for the city. Rendell once referred to Honkala as “a pebble in my shoe.” “And that pebble’s still alive,” she says with a smile.

Can she really win this thing? “I don’t like to see anyone kicked out of their home, either,” says a skeptical interim Sheriff Barbara Deeley on the potential Honkala candidacy. “But we have to follow court orders, and that’s what a sheriff’s sale is.” Deeley seems somewhat sympathetic when told of Honkala’s ideas, specifically for the enactment of a land bank, which would take over city land for individual community purposes. “There are many, many vacant properties in this city that could go to, maybe, people that don’t have homes and, maybe, go to work everyday…Maybe someone could come up with the idea that, as long as you show income, that you have a job, maybe the city could give these homes to people,” she says.

Such an idea would have to be enacted by City Council, on which Honkala plans to lay down some pressure. “I plan to work particularly with Bill Green,” she says, “who says he wants to champion this legislation.” And her advocacy on the streets won’t stop, either. On the campaign trail, Honkala regularly tells her supporters to call their Councilmembers for such legislation. “There are 24 hours in a day,” she says. “We’ll use all of them to create our coalition [for this legislation.]”

Regarding those who see her run as a protest or publicity stunt, Honkala says, “I’m in it to win it…One thing I have over my opponents is that I’m known on a lot of blocks in Philadelphia, and for concrete reasons. Helping people deal with their heat, their landlord, their foreclosure, helping them get access to medical [assistance]. You look at my opponents,” she says with a laugh, “that would probably not be the case.” With the moratorium on sheriff’s sales coming to an end in April, Honkala hopes to have embedded herself into the perfect storm for a street radical to take office.

Hugh Giordano, a 26-year-old Philadelphia Green Party leader and union organizer, was the first to place that bet. After watching her speak at a Love Park demonstration in November, the former state Senate candidate approached her, hoping she’d agree to get on the ballot. Giordano recalls telling her: “You’re the type of person who stands for working people and poor people and you’re what the Green Party needs…I’m tired of rich people representing poor people.”

Honkala had always refused such invitations in the past. So it came as a shock when it didn’t take much convincing. “She was all about it,” says Giordano. Recalls Honkala: “I’ve been involved in too many fights in my life where I thought I was separate from the machine and the corporate money, only to find out later on that I was being used as a pawn for the Democratic Party…[The Green Party] has a strict policy of no corporate money, which I liked.”

Her campaign kicks into high gear on April 1, when she’ll open her office at 718 Market St. “I think I can be the sheriff who represents the poor people, rather than the corporations and the banks. To throw men, women and children out onto the streets in the richest country in the world—it should be illegal to do that,” she says. “Someday, that might not be such a radical idea.”

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Comments 1 - 50 of 50
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1. Ross said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 03:41PM

“Cheri is exactly what Philadelphia needs! She's a fighter, and it's about time we got rid of all these corrupt Democrats.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 03:59PM

“Thank you so much for writing this article & exposing true freedom fighters in our day! This story of a mother doing everything she can to change things for her community is inspiring, and it is time for more people to stand up and demand new solutions to the economic disaster we are living through.”

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3. Sara H. said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:02PM

“Closing the office, like Kromer wants to do, will not solve any problems. It will only create more. I support Honkala, despite her past, and I think she is the best running candidate for the position.”

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4. Jake said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:06PM

“A story like this is more than local news, it's a philosophical debate, where those who claim to care about the well being of fellow men have an opportunity to support someone drawing a line in the sand of corruption and say"No More". At one point and time this country rewarded the type of spirit that Honkala seems to exude daily, those times are gone, replaced with stigmas, and labels. Radical she is not, neither is the notion of keeping families in their homes at all costs. The minute you find yourself feeling otherwise, I suggest you also stop declaring your compassion for all. For you my friend now work for the banks, you just don't get paid for it ;)”

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5. pete hoge said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:24PM

“If you enter into a mortgage contract then you have
agreed to pay your monthly installment. It is not the
bank's fault that you were fired or lost your job and
can't pay your mortgage.

Nobody can see the future and even the banker's
themselves might lose their job's because of a merger.

Even though exterior forces seem to be cruel, it is
your responsibility to work with the reality of this
thing we call LIFE.

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:32PM

“@pete - if you dig a little deeper you will realize the problem isn't as simple as people not paying their bills.

Id like to see change to the things I do not agree with .. instead of accepting it as "LIFE".

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7. Bill W. said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:34PM

“@ Pete. When the terms of that mortgage contract are unclear or unfair or some godforsaken combination of the two, how do you suggest the average overwhelmed and under-resourced layman react? Contracts get renegotiated and reassessed all the time, look at the NFL players union right now. The point is, when a contract is unfulfilled, one must examine the ways to satiate it, whether that be through 3rd Party assistance or the Sheriff's office, it must be done humanely, taking into consideration the basic human rights afforded by our written and ethical constitution.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:37PM

“It is interesting when people don't want to look at the facts of the housing crisis in this country, and want to keep attacking people who lose their jobs or dont have the money to pay what are often illegal fees and questionable interest rate hikes.
The fact is, the Sheriff is supposed to serve and protect the People of a community - during a Depression such as this, it is the responsibility of government to make sure the people are not paying for the mistakes of lawmakers who have allowed our tax dollars to be eaten by banks who were supposed to pass the "bailout" on to families but never planned to.
There are no such thing as "external forces" - this is all about people making decisions. To be able to take an entire working class of people & say "well, things get to live on the streets now..we call it Capitalism" is morally reprehensible.
We create the communities & the cities we live in. Cheri Honkala is advocating a new Philadelphia - solutions over corruption.”

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9. Cornelius said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:39PM

“I live in Philadelphia, own a home, and have a job. I have payments monthly which I've been desperately trying to be on top of. With so much uncertainty right now...I have two words for fellow home owners (not mansions)

Vote Honkala.”

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10. Clyde S. said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:46PM

““If Americans ever allow banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children will wake up homeless”

- Thomas Jefferson

Go get em Cheri!”

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11. A. Cambron said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:52PM

“Its refreshing to see that this country is still producing citizens with a deep sense of social justice. Radical does not mean extremist. It simply means a clear departure from the status quo which is exactly what we need in these troubled times. Time for all of us to think outside the box to address these pressing issues or at least support those that do and are willing to act on it.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 05:07PM

“"9. Cornelius said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:39PM

Vote Honkala.”


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13. Richie Antipuna "KENZO PRIDE!" said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 11:41PM

This page should be filled with KENZOS commenting, where are ALL MY KENZOS? Give it up for CHERI, and vote for her in the election for SHERIFF of PHILADELPHIA, lets get a KENZO IN OFFICE! She has done SOOO much good for OUR community and others around the nation, lets show our support back at CHERI!”

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14. Richie Antipuna said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 11:51PM


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15. Richie Antipuna said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 11:57PM


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16. Chris Zimmerman said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 06:27AM

“Cheri is exactly what Philadelphia needs. The reason I say this, is because she knows the real deal! She started out rough and has transformed her own life....She just may know exactly how to deal with the crime/criminals that are contained in this city.”

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17. Pattie said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 06:34AM

“Good Luck Cheri !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We need to get good people in office so our neighborhood can be a great place to live again.......”

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18. Jenn said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 07:56AM

“Sure as hell got my vote! Someone needs to stand up for us KENZO'S! lol...oh yeah, and thanx Rich for sending us all to this link thru KENZO PRIDE!!!

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19. Christine said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 08:09AM

“You sure as hell got my vote“KENZO PRIDE GROUP ON FACE BOOK, FOR CHERI HONKALA FOR SHERIFF!” Good luck & kick ass!!!

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20. Mallon said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 09:08AM

“Its about time the people start taking back the government. After all it is supposed toe be a government of the people,for the people, Ran by the people. Not some Fat cat who has nor ever will live in the areas ran by these offices.
& I am a supporter Of Richard Antipuna! Thanks for letting me know about this article Rich!

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21. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 09:32AM

“You sure as hell got my vote“
Good luck Show them how it done :)

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22. Tina said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 09:34AM

“You sure as hell got my vote“
Good luck Show them how it done :)

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23. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 09:56AM

“Not sure if the first one posted?? But u got mine!”

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24. Mary Doyle said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 10:53AM

“The Proof is in the pudding she has showed that she can handle any situation I think Rendell is the pebble in Cheri's shoe .But as we all know Cheri wiil work very hard in those shoes even if the pebble hurts cause Cheri is a tough Ladie who can get the job done ,”

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25. margaret said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 10:56AM

“Im going to vote for you Cheri you go girl kenzo pride group on facebook a fan of Richard Antipuna”

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26. JUNIOR said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 11:07AM


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27. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 12:16PM

“brother has been with the Sheriff's for about thirty years, has done the foreclosures, know it hurts him inside. Many have been in our old Kensington neighborhood. Know he's gone out early to let people know, get your stuff out, nothing I can do, Have to change the laws! He has to follow the laws. New sheriff would help, but bottom line is, stop the banks, etc from benefitting on our misfortune.”

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28. Heather Barton said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 01:18PM

“Although I do not typically read Randy's articles due to the fact ( I KNOW 1ST HAND) that he writes whatever he wants. I do feel that this article is somewhat favorable to Cheri and her mission..All my Love and Support for you and yours Cheri! NEVER GIVE UP!! KENZO PRIDE!!”

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29. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 04:12PM

“this story is old. Honkala IS NOT POOR and hasn't been for a very long time. Ask yourself- what kind of person would lie about 'recently being involved in the sex trade industry' to get sympathy? I've met this woman, she lived off of grant money, I'd have more respect for this woman if she actually did have to work as a stripper at 40, but its just not true.

It would be great if no one lost their homes but the reality is Honkala has no idea how to do that or how to make that happen. I live in Kensington, I have been homeless, I have met this woman and I fear for a city that would have her as sheriff.”

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30. theFIZZelle said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 04:26PM

“You know it TAKES and "OUTLAW" to run the SHOW once the Corruption gets out of hand ***
Love this Wild Woman and she's got what it takes, not to mention showing true FORM to MOVING on with life no matter what your past looks like !!!

It takes a WARRIOR to get things done for the People .

That's just MY OPINION !

WE NEED more Transformational Men and Women out there !!!”

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31. Anonymous said... on Mar 25, 2011 at 08:29AM

“this is about as real as Steven Segal - Lawman. its all a publicity stunt. My friend was "offered" a home from Cherie and all she had to do was harbor a fugitive. The woman is backhanded and scheming. Too bad she wears the mask of Robin Hood.

Also is it approropriate for this writer to call my neigberhood the "badlands"? No.

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32. norma said... on Mar 25, 2011 at 12:53PM

“The Green Party is right on the money with their choice for Philadelphia Sheriff candidate Cheri Honkala. I'll be voting for her, telling everyone I know & supporting the only moral imperative coming out of this sheriff's race - keeping families in homes! It is about time someone was willing to challenge the way things are and change them to the way things should be. I saw her speak recently at a rally for worker's rights & I was very moved by her energy and dedication. Go Cheri!”

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33. anonymous said... on Mar 26, 2011 at 05:04PM

“Honkala has mentioned no real plan- only doing whatever it takes. what does that even mean? everyone else wants to shut down the Sheriff's office because it is completely unnecessary. shutting it down would significantly stall foreclosures. the reality is some people abandoned their houses. yes, those houses should be repurposed and people with income should be able to keep their houses. but more importantly this is about banks, and a sheriff cannot stop banks from foreclosing on people, period.”

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34. Danny Alexander said... on Mar 27, 2011 at 11:22AM

“One of the few places in American politics where I think the power of the ballot box may make a difference. If anyone can make a meaningful change, Cheri can, and that's not just because she is one of the most morally focused and politically visionary people I've ever seen in action but also because she is always about more than herself--she is always many in one.

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35. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2011 at 08:54AM

“although i know and dont doubt she was poor, and homeles at one piont, to say she recently worked as a sex worker is rediculos. Here is her sons resume

Whiteboyz (1999)
Jesus' Son (1999)
Drive Me Crazy (1999)
Animal Factory (2000)
Snow Day (2000)
Boiler Room (2000)
Storytelling (2001)
Chelsea Walls (2001)
The Laramie Project (2002)
Hollywood Ending (2002)
People I Know (2002)
Bomb the System (2002)
Winter Solstice (2004)
Dear Wendy (2005)
Broken Flowers (2005)
Just Like the Son (2006)
The Hottest State (2006)
The Memory Thief (2007)
The Good Life (2007)
Weapons (2007)
T Takes (2008)
Good Dick (2008)
Life Is Hot in Cracktown (2009)
Shrink (2009)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Gift of the Magi (2010)

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36. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2011 at 09:16AM

“Morally challenged is more like it Mr. Alexander. She cares only about herslef, which is why this article, and mnay others like this, are not about 'her work' because there isn't anything to report she's done nothing to enact change in poverty. Articles about her are just that, articles about her, a myth about herslef that she has created. I challenge any commentaor to list a real change in poverty issues, people's rights, or anything for that matter, any thing at all that this woman has actually accomplished in the world besides manifesting her own myth. Any comment here for her lists her mythical status (she is many in one? not true, she's one person who hardly even makes time to raise her young son, the son that isn't a movie start that she rarely mentions. comments like 'kenzo pride' i live in kensington but wouldn't vote for someone just because they say they're from there. and on that point- Cheri hasn't ever lived in Kensington for very long and doesn't now)”

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37. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2011 at 03:23PM

“@anonymous35&36 you OBVIOUSLY dont know Cheri Honkala. perhaps you thought you did at one time or another, like THOUSANDS/MILLIONS of other people..perhaps you are jealous. either way, to list her sons resume is they are the same person now? & bec some guy is in movies means he is wealthy, & gives it all to his mother? what news are you reading? what world do you live in? do you think you are reporting some kid of news? lol.
you are obviously obsessed with Cheri Honkala. you should get a life. interesting how you moan & complain she hasnt taken any action when BECOMING SHERIFF & NOT EVICTING PPL will obviously keep thousands of families off the streets, living in cramped quarters with friends & relatives and fighting for room in crowded same-sex shelters. your complaints arent about her work - they are about your ego. Sad for you.
Go Cheri!”

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38. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2011 at 09:16AM

“#35: i'm not sure how her son's acting resume has any bearing on her run for sheriff but thanks for sharing.”

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39. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2011 at 06:22PM

“Listen #35 go get some therapy for your hate or go to church and pray for your misdirected hate. Try being happy and leave Cheri and her beautiful
children alone. We love her....go hate on a corporation or something and stop writing about someone you don't even know.”

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40. G.W. Rolle said... on Apr 1, 2011 at 01:44PM

“I've known Cheri Honkla for a few years now. I've seen her sharing bread with the people,when she didn't have any herself. She just needs to change what's wrong not whats right. I know that she works as a sex worker.I'm just suprised that she was able stop.Cheri Honkla is a bright light in America.”

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41. Anonymous said... on Apr 5, 2011 at 12:22PM

“sharing bread and saying "you'll do whatever it takes" are great, but we need real ideas, not lofty ambitions. I'm not sure i see any real stance, or outline of how she plans to lead, only disdain for the current administration, while great wont sovle the problems they have created.

Sounds like Robin Hood is tryinig to be Sheriff of Nottingham.

I'm also not sure why her history as a sex worker makes her better qualified for the job. So many people have so many sad, sad stories, and they can be uplifting but they do not make you qualified for public office.

id love to hear more specifics on how she will enact change, instead of just railing at the current admistration.”

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42. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:33AM


another article featuring Cheri. Actions like this do nothing but publicize Cheri. Again, she makes a lot of noise but she’s not saying anything at all or mapping out a plan for change.

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43. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:35AM

“@ 38 - not sure how her sex worker history or her working history at all makes her qualified for the job of sheriff. it does make her a likable - rougish character. but thats about it.”

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44. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:42AM

“@39, i know you love Cheri, but that doesn't mean everyone who has met her will or does. You have to accept that people will challenge these stories especially when not supported by substantive policy change outlines.

Sorry I cant leave it alone, when you put yourself int he media spotlight or run for office its all part of the equation. Do i hate cooporations and think they have blame in this? YES!!! Of course i do.

Do i think Cheri can bring anything more than dog an pony show to the postion? No I dont.

I dont need a preist or a threapist or Cheri's fanbase to make my decisions for me and i dont need your permission to express my opinion.

So -- if you cant get over that...maybe some anger managment couseling for you??? Just a thoguht.”

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45. Anonymous said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 03:23PM

“Cheri Honkala is and always will be a gross slut.”

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46. Anonymous said... on Apr 8, 2011 at 12:39PM

“wow. Mr Beech has just outlined more quality information for the public than i have seen in any article about Honkala and her crazy antics. If Honkala was publicizing information like this, i might be more inclined to give her my vote. having empathy for the disinfranchised is admirable but educating them to be informed citizens who are part of movement is the quality of a leader.”

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47. Tom Joad said... on Apr 16, 2011 at 07:59PM

“A Sheriff who refuses to throw men, women and children into the streets in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression? It makes perfect sense to me. Wall Street, the Super Rich and their bought and paid for corporate politicians are sucking TENS of Trillions of dollars away from us and our crumbling communities. Check out the extended "Bush Tax Cuts", the TARP Bailout, insanely low Corporate and Super Rich tax rates, record breaking corporate profits (yes - right now) and job elimination. The so called "Programs" to "save" people's homes are a criminal joke. They're NOT saving homes, barely a drop in the bucket. Cheri's politics and organizing work continually exposes "Power" and their apologists on their hypocrisy. She embarrasses them while asking us to face these issues, with no looking away. I say: Go On Cheri! CHERI HONKALA for Sheriff of Philadelphia! That will really piss off "Foreclosure Incorporated" and all their kiss asses.”

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48. paula lombardi said... on Jun 1, 2012 at 09:12PM

“I think I will attend the event this coming tuesday and meet cheri myself.
I cannot believe how people talk about others. I don't think I could, even if it were true. My goodness, it is so much easier to be nice. So much negativity here. What a shame.”

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49. sarge said... on Jun 11, 2012 at 12:59PM

“I do not live in Philadelphia but I have been there several times. Most recently in 2000 & I met Cheri in Kennsington somewhere. I have never met anyone who approaches anything with as much passion as Cheri approaches the travesty of poverty and homelessness in the wealthiest society in the western hemisphere, if not in the whole world.
I don't know if she will ever be sheriff, or if she even wants to be sheriff (actually, I doubt she does). I do know this though, the whole issue of treating people like garbage instead of like people like God created, and insuring their dignity and general well-being WILL BE AND IS on the front burner in Philadelphia and anywhere else until... you go girl!”

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50. Mortgage Movies said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 01:35PM

“Hope she can fight for people like Lorayne Souders!

Lorayne Souders v. BoA: Michele Sjolander nailed on robo stamping, removal & default judgment.


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