Political factions in the Latino strongholds of North Philadelphia are sizing up possible replacements for PA Rep. Leslie Acosta (D-197), who has been urged to resign after the exposure of her court-sealed guilty plea to federal felony charges back in March.
In a closed-door meeting Thursday, Congressman Bob Brady, head of the City Democratic Committee, met with ward leaders from the 197th district who want to back Noelia Diaz as Acosta’s replacement. Diaz, a politically unknown community activist, helped campaign for Manny Morales’ failed bid to unseat Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez last year.
The situation, already complicated by Acosta’s stated refusal to step down, could get even messier.
Quiñones-Sánchez, long at loggerheads with Brady and his Democratic allies over North Philadelphia’s barrio, has not decided whether she would support Diaz or float another candidate.
“There are a lot of moving parts right now,” Quiñones-Sánchez said yesterday. “I don’t know (Diaz) other than seeing her activity supporting Manny Morales.”
At Thursday’s meeting, however, sources said there were murmurs that Tomas Sánchez – the councilwoman’s husband, who unsuccessfully ran for the State Senate's 2nd District seat in 2014 – may gun for Acosta’s seat if she is forced to leave. Danilo Burgos, who came in second in the Democratic primary against Acosta that same year, was also tossed in as a possibility. Quiñones-Sánchez could not confirm any plans at the moment.
PA Rep. Angel Cruz (D-180), who attended Thursday’s meeting with Brady, said there would not be enough support from the district’s ward leaders to nominate an ally of Quiñones-Sánchez.
“The ward leaders won’t support it,” Cruz said. “It’s too much power for Quiñones. It’s too much power for one family to hold. It’s not going to happen.”
At this point, the nomination process depends largely on what Acosta does next.
Acosta could not be reached for comment, but her attorney, Christopher Warren, told the Inquirer this week that the freshman representative will retain her seat until her sentencing, which is scheduled long after the November election (Acosta is running unopposed). The state constitution generally prohibits convicted felons from holding office, but Warren said that Acosta plans to launch a legal bid to keep her seat on the House floor next year.
Her former allies aren’t buying it. Gov. Tom Wolf, Brady, and a smattering of pols across the state have since called for her resignation. Cruz said that his camp is urging Acosta to withdraw her name from the ballot as soon as possible in order to save face and avoid a costly special election.
“She said us she’d step down and then she said no, and then she said she wasn’t guilty,” Cruz told City & State PA. “If she would step down today or tomorrow, we could file an injunction to get another name on the (November) ballot and it would save us a lot of money. (Acosta) is only going to stay on board for November and December. If you’re a convicted felon, you’re not going to get seated.”
Acosta’s confession to a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering stems back to her employment at Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic before she was elected. The clinic now lies at the heart of a 53-count indictment against its former board president, Renee Tartaglione, the daughter of state Sen. Christine Tartaglione and the wife of 19th Ward Leader Carlos Matos.
At the meeting, Matos threw his support behind Noelia Diaz, Cruz said. He could not be reached for further comment.
According to the state election calendar, the window of time to get another candidate on the ballot is shrinking fast, although other Pennsylvania State House races have fought for 11th-hour ballot replacements and won.
If Acosta withdraws her name from the ballot soon, a Democratic nominee could be chosen by majority vote among ward leaders, who represent 76 divisions in the House district. Matos’ ward represents 19 division votes. Emilio Vazquez, leader of the 43rd Ward and a staunch opponent of Quiñones-Sánchez, represents another 25 divisions.
In 2011, the 197th District boundaries were redrawn to include a predominantly African American section of North Philadelphia west of Broad Street. At least one ward leader, Dwayne Lilley, who represents nine divisions of the district in the 11th ward, did not attend the meeting.
It is worth noting that a special election next year would open the risk of another candidate running on the Republican or Independent ticket, whereas a switch-out for Acosta would guarantee an uncontested Democratic victory for the ward leaders’ choice.