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February 16, 2017

Can a Philly activist and ex-Green Party VP candidate fill a convicted state rep's seat?

Cheri Honkala, who went from living out of her car to running alongside Jill Stein as the vice presidential pick in the 2012 election, is confident that she'll soon represent parts of North Philadelphia in Pennsylvania's House of Representatives.

There's one problem, though – as of now, her name won't be on the ballot come next month's special election looking to fill the seat.

Honkala wants to take over a statehouse seat that speaks for one of the poorest legislative districts in the state, the 197th – which represents Feltonville, Hunting Park, Glenwood, Fairhill, North Square and Francisville.

Sound familiar? It should. It was just in December that state Rep. Leslie Acosta resigned her 197th seat after running for re-election unopposed after quietly pleading guilty to a felony charge in 2015.

The turnaround is quick. The special election to fill the seat is scheduled for March 21, and on the ticket are newcomer Lucinda Little, a Republican, and Frederick Ramirez, a Democrat and the executive director of the Pan American Mental Health Services.

Honkala is still committed despite a Commonwealth Court judge rejecting her petition to get on the ballot Wednesday after the Green Party filed paperwork a day past the deadline. 

Her lawyer, Samuel Stretton, is planning an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Honkala is spearheading a write-in campaign if that proves unsuccessful.

"We intend to win this thing," said Honkala, who lives in West Kensington. "For us, this is not symbolic; for us, this is about uplifting."

Honkala, who said she's raised close to $40,000, wasn't completely surprised by the judge's decision. She said her paperwork was in, but Green Party officials filed late. 

"I knew that I would probably have some obstacles and continue to have obstacles because it's been a hell of a fight just in this country just to introduce independent politics," she said. "I wasn't necessarily surprised; I was disappointed because I think there is a bigger issue at stake here and that's that people in my district in the 197 need to be the ones to decide who's their elected officials."

She's relying on name recognition from her work in the community to make her stand out. Honkala is the co-founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Poor People's Economic Human Rights.

She said she's pretty confident that residents in the district have a better idea of who she is, more so than Ramirez or Little.

And while she believes that her history with social activism in Philadelphia will help, she said her friendly status with former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who led a massive recount effort in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, is also a benefit.

Honkala said Stein and her 2016 running mate Ajamu Baraka have helped her along in her campaign for state representative. 

"They got on the phone and started to call folks because they know we have similar values and similar ideas of [the] kind of country we want to live in," she said. 

Stein spoke with Honkala live on Facebook last week and referred to her as a "fellow resister." 

"I learned so much from Cheri, continue to learn so much from Cheri. We are so fortunate that Cheri is taking the fight for us, for immigrants, for people of color, for women, for indigenous people, for workers – for all whose lives are on the line and have been on the line for quite some time." 

Stein and Baraka will also head to Philadelphia Saturday to campaign alongside Honkala at Sammy's Place in North Philly. 

"For me, this is just a continuation of my role in the movement – this is not a career advancement or career choice, my neighbors came to me and said, 'Cheri, you have to do this because this district desperately needs someone who's going to fight for us, especially in this Trump era.'"