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North Philly feud costs Democrats a shot at a state House seat

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, as chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee, is often spoken of as a big-city political boss.

But Brady's job is more akin to a full-time mediator, trying to keep competing factions from shaking apart the local Democratic Party.

Nowhere is the fractious nature of the party more frequently on public display than the heavily Latino North Philadelphia neighborhoods, east of Broad Street and south of Roosevelt Boulevard.

The constant squabbling among Democrats there now has a new embarrassing cost: yet another in a series of high-profile party messes.

The state will hold a special election March 21 in the state House's 197th District, which includes parts of Feltonville, Hunting Park, Glenwood, Fairhill, North Square, and Francisville.

As of now, there will be no Democrat on that ballot, even though the party controls 85 percent of the voter registration in the district.

Only Republican nominee Lucinda Little is on the ballot. Her party holds just 5 percent of the registered voters there. Independents and smaller political parties make up the remaining 10 percent.

Brady's frustration is clear when he discusses the area and its Democratic leaders.

"They've got to get their act together," Brady said of the ward leaders and elected officials in the neighborhoods that include the 197th District. "They just don't get along together. There's too much animosity. The Latinos, it's a shame they just can't get their act together."

The 197th seat is open because former State Rep. Leslie Acosta pleaded guilty last year to a felony embezzlement charge but then, to the consternation of her party, won reelection and waited until Jan. 3 to resign, just before her colleagues in Harrisburg planned to eject her.

Acosta, who replaced another convicted felon, former State Rep. Jose "J.P." Miranda, had pushed for the local Democratic ward leaders in the district to select as their candidate for the special election Frederick Ramirez, president of Pan American Mental Health Clinics.

But state Commonwealth Court Judge Anne E. Covey on Feb. 23 removed Ramirez from the ballot, ruling that he does not really reside in the home he owns in the district.

Another Commonwealth Court judge previously prevented Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala from being listed on the ballot because her nomination papers were filed one day late. She appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, which on Friday in a 4-3 decision rejected her bid to get on the ballot. Honkala has vowed to run a write-in campaign for the seat.

Covey, who was elected to the court as a Republican, on Friday rejected a request from the Democratic Party to allow Emilio Vazquez, a Philadelphia Parking Authority revenue auditor on a 30-day leave from that job, onto the ballot as a replacement candidate for Ramirez.

Vazquez, the Democratic leader of the 43rd Ward, has been involved in the efforts to replace Acosta since the special election was called in January.

"The party doesn't run it from the top down," Brady said of selecting special-election candidates. "I let people be independent. The ward leaders in the district have the say."

As if on cue, the ward leaders and elected officials in the area promptly blamed their problems on each other.

State Rep. Angel Cruz represents the 180th District, next door to the 197th. He previously represented parts of the 197th until the decennial redistricting plan was approved in 2012, shifting his district eastward. That plan made the 197th a majority Hispanic district, at 53.5 percent.

Cruz, who is also the Seventh Ward leader, concedes that a "power struggle" roils the area. He spent part of last week arguing on Facebook with people who back other potential candidates.

"I try not to make those kinds of comments," Cruz said. "But you can only take so much."

Cruz is an on-again, off-again political ally with Carlos Matos, Democratic leader of the 19th Ward.

Complicating the conflict, Matos is married to Renee Tartaglione, daughter of former City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione and sister to State Sen. Tina Tartaglione.

Renee Tartaglione is awaiting federal trial, accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Juniata Community Health Clinic, where Acosta previously worked before taking office.

Acosta is now a cooperating witness for the prosecution who is expected to testify at Tartaglione's trial in May.

Matos, who had supported Acosta's bid for office, feuds frequently with City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, except when he is allied with her against other foes. Sánchez's Seventh District shares some of the same territory as the 197th District.

"I think people have to put the community first," said Matos, after suggesting Sánchez does not. "They can't be worried about how much power they can gain or whatever."

Sánchez, who supported her husband's unsuccessful run against Tina Tartaglione in the 2014 Democratic primary, said she is not a party leader but tries to work "within the framework."

She blames the party's inability to secure a candidate in the 197th on the shifting alliances in the district.

"I think it's part of what has to happen for people to see how bad it is," Sánchez said.

Former City Councilman Angel Ortiz laughingly calls the local Democratic leaders a "dysfunctional family."

He wants the party to give more opportunities to young, active Democrats. But "a lack of leadership" prevents that from happening, he said, and puts the 197th seat at risk.

"I think we're going to make national news on March 21, either way it goes," Ortiz said. "It would be a heavily embarrassing situation for the Democratic City Committee."

The Republicans already hold a sturdy majority in the 203-seat state House with 121 members.  So picking up a formerly Democratic seat won't signal any major shift in power.  Still, just two members of the Philadelphia delegation to the House are Republicans, and both hail from Northeast Philly.

And the Pennsylvania Republican Party pounced on the ruling. New chairman Val  DiGiorgio quickly issued a plea for campaign donations and volunteers to help Little.

"We now have an opportunity to shock Philadelphia's Democratic machine because of their sheer incompetence and corruption," DiGiorgio wrote in that plea.

For now, the Democrats have appealed Covey's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Brady says the Democrats will run a write-in campaign for the seat if Vazquez is kept off the ballot. But he acknowledged that the Republicans could win the seat, at least until the next regular election for a two-year term next year.

Until then, Brady will keep mediating.

"The Hispanics have been fighting for years," Brady said. "And the common denominator is they all talk to me. I try to keep them together."