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March 24, 2017

Honkala on 197th District election drama: 'It's all an inside job'

When she arrived at the Board of Elections hearing room near Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street on Friday morning, Cheri Honkala knew she wouldn’t be declared the winner of this week’s special election for the 197th District statehouse seat.

That didn’t make it any easier for her to accept, though.

“I know what I’m up against. I know what people are going to say, that Cheri’s a sore loser,” said Honkala, a Green Party candidate who ran a write-in campaign for the North Philadelphia office. “I went through a total loss of innocence this week. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s all an inside job.”

Honkala was the only candidate on hand when Board of Elections employees counted those write-in votes in a quintessentially unusual election, even by Philadelphia standards.

There was just one candidate on the ballot, Republican Lucinda Little, who drew a shade under 200 votes in a race that saw a ridiculously low six-percent voter turnout.

Honkala, whose name didn’t appear on the ballot because of timing woes, launched a write-in campaign that she was convinced would prove victorious. It wouldn’t. 

Emilio Vasquez, the Democratic Party candidate, took the same approach because his name wasn’t on the ballot, either.

Just after 9 a.m., a pair of Board of Elections workers started reading through receipt-tape records of write-ins from voting machines across the North Philadelphia district. 

At 10:33 a.m., they completed that effort, with absentee and provisional ballots added in shortly thereafter.

"I’ve told detectives that if something happens to me, it’s because I’m running in an election.” – Cheri Honkala

The public count – in a room filled with a dozen or so observers and armed law-enforcement officers – went a little something like this: Vasquez, Vasquez, Vasquez, Vasquez, Honkala, Vasquez, Honkala, Vasquez, Vasquez.

“It was piercing,” the anti-poverty activist said of hearing those counts aloud over the course of 90 minutes on a day that she figured she be planning her move to Harrisburg.

Within a couple of hours, Vasquez – a Democratic ward leader and Philadelphia Parking Authority employee – would be declared the winner with (an unofficial total) of 1,970 votes to Honkala’s 282.

Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Cheri Honkala, second from right, awaits the final tallies in the 197th District statehouse race in which she was a write-in candidate. She'd later learn in that Board of Elections hearing room that she lost the race, but will fight on in court.

For Honkala, it ain’t over, though. She – and her attorney Samuel C. Stretton – have already announced their intentions to ask a “federal court to void this election and to hold those accountable for their gross misconduct in undermining our Democracy.” (Early Friday afternoon, the District Attorney's Office announced that its task force had opened an investigation into the election.)

One of Honkala’s supporters on Friday likened what happened in the 197th to what happened to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary: When you fight the machine, the machine often wins.

As she was explaining that, another staunch supporter – YahNé Ndgo – was forwarding emails from voters claiming they were handed stamps to vote for Vasquez when they asked for those that would register a vote for Honkala.

On Friday afternoon, the District Attorney's Office announced it opened an investigation into the election.

To be sure, the 197th has always been a bastion of shady Election Day dealings. 

City Commissioner Al Schmidt told me on Thursday that this particular race – thanks to the markedly minimal turnout – fostered a situation where people electioneering outside the polls were able to make personal contact with just about every voter.

The allegations leveled by the losing candidates will be addressed as the legal case, and efforts from statehouse Republicans, progresses next week.

On Friday, though, Honkala was briefly reduced to tears when I asked her about a campaign in which she seemed so confident just last week. (Much of that confidence came from a robust street operation on Election Day, but many of those supporters came from outside the district, if not the state, to help).

She spoke about people saying “she never got the menu” of how much cash money it takes for ward leaders and Election Day workers to steer votes in her direction.

She noted that because she was “too busy being a candidate” on Tuesday, she didn’t hear of alleged shenanigans at polling places throughout a North Philadelphia district comprising Feltonville, Hunting Park, Glenwood, Fairhill, North Square and Francisville.

She also talked about fear of repercussions because she dared to defy the unpredictable powers-that-be in the district.

“This is not a joke. After I declared, people told me that there are going to be problems if I go through with this,” she said. “We’ve gotten some indirect threats. I have to be careful about what I say, but I’ve told 26th (phonkalolice) District detectives that if something happens to me, it’s because I’m running in an election.”

When I asked whether she regretted running in the race, her response was emphatic.

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m outraged because the 2,000 people, these beautiful people who sent me $20, got robbed. They never saw Emilio knock on one door. He was probably out booting their cars.”

And her takeaway from the experience so far?

“It’s a sad day,” she said. “I learned so much in this process.”

For someone whose been active in the city for as long as Honkala has, that’s really saying something.