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A tight race in a district that meanders

An incumbent picked by ward leaders is running against a couple of community activists.

The city's Seventh Council District is a twisting, tortured case study in gerrymandering. Its last councilman, Rick Mariano, is doing time at the federal pen at Fort Dix. One of his predecessors, Harry Jannotti, got caught up in the Abscam scandal.

Little wonder, then, that there is not much passion for politics in the district, which ambles awkwardly through sections of Kensington, Hunting Park, Frankford and the lower Northeast, and which a local data firm called the most heavily gerrymandered local district in the nation.

But however alienated they may be, voters in the Seventh will decide what could be one of the closest Council elections Tuesday: Their options are fresh-faced incumbent Daniel Savage and community activists Maria Quiñones Sanchez and Marnie Aument-Loughrey. Savage and Sanchez are widely seen as the top contenders.

"It's hard to get people in this district to believe they can change things, that their voices matter," said Sanchez, who last week became the only Council candidate citywide to be endorsed by Gov. Rendell.

Sanchez wasn't just referring to the gerrymandering or the legal problems of the district's past Council members. She said voters were further estranged when Savage got the job in November without facing a serious opponent.

Savage was one of the three Council members selected in secretive proceedings by Democratic ward leaders to fill empty seats. All three were ward leaders and party stalwarts, and cruised past token Republican opposition in a special election.

Even Savage said that was not "an ideal situation, and I wish the circumstances were different."

But he said voters should judge him on what he had done with the opportunity, including holding hearings on the need for more parole officers and an improved recidivism strategy.

"I opened the ears and the eyes of the press and the public to this," said Savage, noting that the mayoral candidates took up the issues later.

Savage said he had also improved constituent service (tearing down firebombed homes, for instance), which he said had suffered in some neighborhoods under Mariano.

Of Rendell's endorsement of Sanchez, Savage said: "He was misinformed on what Maria Quiñones Sanchez is, and uninformed about what I am and what I've done." He pointed to his own endorsers, who include District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, and extensive union support.

Savage's resume includes four years on the Turnpike Commission and a job as office manager in his father's law firm. His father, Timothy, is now a federal judge.

Savage has the support of virtually all ward leaders in the district, and the funding - $145,000 last week to Sanchez's $6,500 - to get feet on the street on Election Day.

Sanchez knows that the machine is working against her, and she's all too aware of its influence. Mariano handily defeated her in 1999, the last time she ran for the seat.

Now, as then, Sanchez will try to capitalize on the district's large Latino population. Sanchez said that she was a more mature candidate this time, and that the citywide thirst for reform-minded candidates gave her a real chance.

Indeed, Sanchez has become one of the more prominent faces in the loose coalition of self-described "progressives" trying to shake up City Hall.

"We've changed the conversation and, more important, the expectations," Sanchez said. "Council members have been too comfortable. They can't afford to be anymore."

But unlike many of her fellow challengers, Sanchez is hardly a political newcomer, as Savage is quick to point out. She has served on the staff of two Council members - Marian Tasco and Angel Ortiz - and her husband worked for Councilman Juan Ramos.

She also has extensive experience in registering Latino voters, was executive director of a Latino educational institution called ASPIRA, and helped found a bilingual charter school.

Although she has much less money in the bank than Savage, she has raised a respectable amount (more than $80,000) during the race, much of it from small donors.

When asked about the job Savage had done, Sanchez said she was "glad to see he's taking the job seriously."

"But this should not be about the last five months. This should be about the track record I've had for the last 20 years," she said. "Compare it to his."

Aument-Loughrey is a Democratic committeewoman, a member of the Police District Advisory Council, and a well-known activist in the district's Kensington section. In 2000, she ran for state representative but lost narrowly to Republican John Taylor.