They kept calling for order in the room. Some were indignant, others incredulous.
Two weeks ago, convicted State Rep. Leslie Acosta held a “community meeting” with about 30 committee members and various political watchdogs from her district. But it turned out to be more of an awkward endorsement party. As PW previously reported, Acosta is on a low-flying mission to persuade her district’s voters that Freddy Ramirez, the president of Pan-American Mental Health Clinic, is the right guy to replace her in Harrisburg.
“You’re saying this is the only person?” one committee woman asked. “This is the only person who can—”
“I’m saying that this is the only person at this time,” Acosta responded.
Earlier this year, Acosta quietly confessed to one felony count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, a deed that dates back to her pre-Harrisburg stint at a local mental health facility—not Ramirez’s, but rather, the FBI-targeted Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic. We’ll return to that clinic in a minute. For now, Acosta is weighing in on her successor.
Despite her re-election in November, the one-term legislator-turned-felon will step down in January, thus triggering a special election.
In contrast to an open primary, special elections allow party leaders to nominate their own candidate for the ballot. In Acosta’s 197th District, this means that ward leaders—seven in total—will make the party’s nomination amongst themselves. Those seven votes are weighted based on the number of divisions in each ward. Committee people can try to sway their ward leader’s nomination, but ultimately, in this district at least, backroom politics is the name of the game.
Ramirez told the room of somewhat confused Democrats that he’d already expressed interest in the position to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who chairs the city’s Democratic party.
But to get the party’s nod, Ramirez needs the backing of someone like Emilio Vazquez, leader of the district’s largest ward which represents one-third of its divisions. Vazquez shared a stage with Acosta and Ramirez at the mid-December meeting. Some attendees perceived it as his endorsement for Ramirez as well.
“I find it unfortunate that, at the end of the day, we’re going to be represented by someone for whom we did not have an opportunity to vote,” Ryan Kellermeyer, a community advocate in the Vazquez’s ward, said at the meeting. “I have nothing against [Ramirez] personally. But I would like to encourage Emilio to hold public meetings, to put out fliers, and to give people some voice. You can’t just be handpicked by a phone call from Bob Brady and the trust of our outgoing state rep.”
The thing is, Vazquez didn’t openly promise his ward’s support to Ramirez. It would be strange if he had, because Vazquez himself has also expressed interest in taking Acosta’s seat, Bob Brady told PW.
Moreover, Vazquez has reportedly sworn allegiance to yet another possible candidate, Noelia Diaz.
The plan was hatched months ago between some of Acosta’s former allies in the Latino strongholds of North Philadelphia, the same folks who helped her get elected in 2014. State Rep. Angel Cruz, whose district is right next door, called for ward leaders to circle the wagons. Together, Vazquez and 19th Ward Leader Carlos Matos carry enough divisions to decide the nomination. With Diaz on the ballot, combined with an 8-to-1 Democratic voter edge, this cadre is all but guaranteed to have another one of their own in Harrisburg.
But in this part of town, political pacts can be made and broken in the same day. Vazquez did not return numerous calls from PW about what’s going on.
“He won’t return your calls because he doesn’t want you to get a statement where he’s saying he’s with this [candidate] or that one, because then he can’t negotiate and make his own bid,” Cruz said. “They’re all trying to make their own deal to see what they can come up with.”
If Vazquez and Matos back different candidates, it would open up the door for the district’s minority African American ward leaders to band together behind another candidate.
“If they split, there’s going to be a fight,” Cruz added.
Sources in the district say that the black ward leaders, some of them disappointed with the politics and track record of corruption on the Latino side of the district, may decide to float their own candidate.
Nobody knows for sure at this stage. Cruz insists that they will have a majority vote for Diaz. But any quid pro quos made to secure that nomination will likely fly unseen by Democratic voters.
Other ward leaders either refused to speak on the record or did not return PW’s calls. For Matos at least, there’s a good reason not to talk to the press.
Remember that mental health clinic that brought Acosta down? Matos is its founder. The Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic is at the center of a 53-count federal indictment against Matos’ wife, Renee Tartaglione, who stands accused of running the clinic like a slush fund while she served as its board president. Acosta is expected to cooperate with federal prosecutors at trial in January.
Let that sink in.
What can Democratic voters do to have a say?
Last week, Kellermeyer started an online petition asking PA House Speaker Mike Turzai and other state officials to include the 197 special election in the May primary. Once Acosta resigns in January, Turzai will have 10 days to set a date for the election, which can happen no sooner than sixty days from that date.
Philly’s special election process has been criticized in the past as grossly undemocratic. And it all comes down to lack of transparency, said Patrick Christmas, policy program manager at the watchdog group Committee of Seventy.
“Any political party seeking to build trust among its members and legitimacy in its nomination of candidates should be open, inclusive and democratic. This is not the way we do special elections in Philly, and that’s a problem,” Christmas said.
On a more practical note, a May election in the 197th District could save the state more than $150,000 in special election costs. It would also give an Independent or Republican candidate more time to mount a campaign. Nonetheless, party nominees will remain an insider’s game. And most special elections still lean towards Democratic victories.
Then again, little appears normal about democracy in the 197th District right now.