Warring Democrats in North Philadelphia's 197th Legislative District are so busy fighting one another they couldn't get a qualified candidate on the ballot in time for Tuesday's special election to fill the seat.
But residents of the struggling community are used to being taken for granted. Their last two representatives left in disgrace. J.P. Miranda pleaded guilty in a ghost-employee scam in 2015. He was replaced by Leslie Acosta, who last year pleaded guilty to a federal embezzlement charge.
Acosta managed to keep her secret plea quiet until the Inquirer reported it. That didn't entice the Republican Party into running a candidate against her. Neither did the Democratic Party get Acosta to step aside, so she ran unopposed in the general election. Acosta finally resigned in December, setting up the special election. She tried to pick her would-be successor, Frederick Ramirez, but a judge tossed him off the ballot because he didn't live in the district.
In fact, the only candidate on the ballot is Republican Lucinda Little, 48, of Feltonville. Quite a few write-in campaigns are also being run, but the most credible is by West Kensington antipoverty activist Cheri Honkala, 53, whose Green Party missed the filing deadline.
In a joint interview with the Inquirer Editorial Board, neither Honkala nor Little seemed to have a firm grasp of a legislator's job. But Little better articulated the office's requirements and potential. One of the district's fewer than 1,000 white voters, Little said she wants to meet with other residents to hear their concerns. The district is mostly Latino and African American.
Little expressed her willingness to act independently of her Republican colleagues, if elected, by voting to raise school funding, increase the minimum wage, and oppose a bill that would punish Philadelphia for acting as a sanctuary city by not rounding up undocumented immigrants accused of crimes.
If Little wins, her tenure may be brief. Democrats hold an 85 percent registration edge and could easily win in 2018. But Little would have time to prove herself and show long-neglected constituents what real representation can do for them. The Inquirer recommends Little to 197th District voters.
In doing that, some acknowledgment of Honkala's record of fighting for the city's most vulnerable residents should be made. She has made it a personal mission to find housing for the homeless, often putting them in her van and transporting them to temporary shelter. But Honkala's disdain for working within the system, any system, would likely make her a poor legislator.
Not just the 197th District, but the city in its entirety needs more effective representation than it gets in Harrisburg. It's not enough that Honkala would be a reliable vote for the Democratic side of the legislature. Philadelphia needs more than a predictable vote. It needs legislators who can be effective advocates for the city.
The election of a Republican in the 197th District, even if the Democrats paved the way for it, could be celebrated as an occasion when voters put their needs above party affiliation. Wouldn't it be great if the city and its suburbs used the event as the spark to form a bipartisan caucus that makes it impossible for Harrisburg to shortchange the state's biggest economic contributor?