Less than a year ago, they helped elect him. But now, Democratic politicos in North Philadelphia have abruptly withdrawn support for rookie state Rep. Emilio Vazquez, just weeks before the filing deadline for candidates to enter the race.
In a meeting last week, ward leaders in the predominantly Latino and African American neighborhoods of the 197th Pa. House district voted to back former City Council aide Danilo Burgos against Vazquez in the upcoming May primary.
Vazquez, a former Philadelphia Parking Authority employee and longtime leader of the 43rd Ward, was elected last March via an unusual write-in campaign in an equally unusual special election, which began with the original Democratic nominee being removed from the ballot and ended with an illegal electioneering lawsuit.
Vazquez says he still plans to seek reelection.
“Endorsements really don’t mean much. The only thing is, by not getting the endorsements, you save money,” Vazquez said. “There are just these people that don’t like me and the way I run the House of Representatives – but I do what I need to represent the district that I was elected to serve.”
The politics of this enclave are convoluted and full of conflicting personalities – and worthy of a brief history of what’s gone down here in the past four years:
- The previous two incumbents in the 197th district left office in disgrace. First was state Rep. Jose "J.P." Miranda, who, in 2014, went down over a ghost employee scam. In 2016, Miranda’s successor, former state Rep. Leslie Acosta, pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy at a mental health clinic operated by a politically wired family in the neighborhood. (That clinic was at one time run by the now-convicted Renee Tartaglione and her husband Carlos Matos, who remains an influential ward leader.)
- Thanks to a court-sealed guilty plea, Acosta was re-elected in 2016 without opposition. She stepped down at the beginning of that term, triggering one of the more bizarre special elections Philly has seen in recent years.
- In lieu of a competitive primary, special elections allow committee people and ward leaders from each party to nominate their own candidate. In many Philly districts, this means a shoo-in victory for Democrats, who hold an outsize voter registration advantage.
- All would have gone smoothly for the Dems, but their party-backed candidate, Dr. Freddie Ramirez, was hit with a legal challenge alleging that he lived in Bucks County. The case went to court and, in a surprising move, a judge ordered his name booted from the ballot. Well past filing deadlines, the overwhelmingly Democratic district found itself without a Democrat on the ballot.
- In stepped Vazquez to run a write-in campaign. He ended up trouncing the sole candidate on the ballot, Republican Lucinda Little, as well as fellow write-in Cheri Honkala, a Green Party supporter who failed to file her candidacy in time. The two losing candidates alleged foul play and, accordingly, have filed suit over the results.
- In October, election fraud charges were filed against four Democrats who were working polling stations that day.
Needless to say, the ongoing drama has left a mark on the local party.
The newly backed candidate, Burgos, a former aide to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Councilman Allan Domb, is no stranger to the neighborhood’s political arena. He ran for the 197th seat in 2014, finishing second to the now-convicted Acosta in that primary.
The incumbent maintains he has managed the district office well, servicing thousands of families since he was sworn in last April; Burgos believes it’s time for the district to put recent scandals behind them and move in another direction.
“I believe the party is identifying good talent,” Burgos said in a phone interview. “The party decided to go a different way with a candidate who is recognized by the community.”
“It’s not the party,” Vazquez countered, in a separate interview. “It’s what Carlos [Matos] wants. But it is what it is. I’m not here to badmouth anyone...It’s all about the people of el barrio.”
Burgos won by a slim margin of committee votes. Two of the seven wards in the district – led by Vazquez and Matos – carry the lion’s share of those votes. Only Vazquez’s ward and one other voted to back him; the remainder went to Burgos, both candidates confirmed.
Also of note: Ramirez, the candidate removed from the ballot last year, has been rumored to be running as well.
Reached at the Pan-American Mental Health Clinic where he serves as president, Ramirez confirmed that he may run again, but declined to comment on specifics.