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Special election shakeup gives anti-poverty activist chance to win

If elected, Cheri Honkala said she'll turn the 197th district state representative's office into a homeless shelter.
Longtime activist Cheri Honkala is running a write-in campaign as a Green Party candiSam Newhouse

Cheri Honkala had planned to hit the streets at lunchtime on Thursdayto meet potential voters.

But she had to pause to ensure that a social worker picked up her foster care child and gave him his meds. And then she stopped to arrange a ride for an elderly voter who needed a ride to a nursing home to see his wife.

Honkala doesn't hesitate to pause her campaign to help someone in need.

“How can you not?” she asked.

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Honkala is running a write-in campaign to become the first Green Party candidate elected to statewide office in Pennsylvania. She aiming for a seat in the state House of Representatives, a seat to be filled by a special election on March 21.

In addition to tackling a political campaign, Honkala recently brought three young foster children into her home. They were about to be split up.

“This all day — problem-solving and trying to get elected,” quippedcampaign volunteer Elizabeth Ortiz, 57, as Honkala shook hands and handed out campaign flyers Thursday.

In heavily Democratic Philadelphia, the Green Party winning a state representative’s seat in Harrisburg would usually be next to impossible.

But a major error by the Democrats meansthere’s a glimmer of hope for Honkala. The Democratic candidate was booted off the ballot for living outside the district. Voters will only seeRepublican Lucinda Little on the ballot.

“This is the beginning of the rebellion,” Honkala said. “I’m going to win because there’s nobody else on the ballot.”

Honkala is not the only candidate running a write-in campaign, but she stands out. For decades, she has been one of Philly’s best-known anti-poverty activists, primarily active in Kensington. She estimates she has been arrested about 200 times during various protests.

The founder of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, she ran for Philadelphia sheriff in 2011 with a stated goal of stopping foreclosures. In the early ’90s, she was involved in helping homeless people turned away from packed shelters break into and occupy abandoned churches and vacant housing projects.

If elected as a representative of the commonwealth, she plans to do more of the same.

“Literally, the day after I’m elected, I’ll drive around and pick up homeless people,” she said. “If I can’t get them city services, they’re gonna get housed in my district offices.”

If Philly ever loses its sanctuary city status, she’ll provide shelter at her office for undocumented immigrants, she said.

“Very concrete things can happen to uplift this neighborhood if I’m elected,” Honkala said.

Honkala is working on a door-to-door campaign with the help of volunteers to introduce herself to voters and ask them to write in her name. They’re even handing out a Cheri Honkala stamp so voters won’t have to remember the spelling.

“Not gonna take any risks,” she said.

How Democrats flubbed the ballot

The special election is being held to replace forrmer state Rep. Leslie Acosta, who pleaded guilty to federal embezzlement charges, but didn’t tell the state Democrats until after she won re-election in 2016. She stepped down in January.

Acosta replaced JP Miranda, who lost the 2014 primary to Acosta while facing charges of illegally hiring his sister as chief of staff. He later pleaded guiity.

The Democratic candidate to replace Acosta, Freddie Ramirez, was booted from the ballot after the courts found he did not reside in the 197thdistrict as required by law.

The courts later rejected a Democratic Party bid to replace Ramirez on the ballot with a new candidate.

Courts also rejected Honkala’s bid to get her name on the ballot, but she thinks her years in the community and the absence of a Democratic competitor give her write-in candidacy a chance to succeed.

“It’s an opportunity for the person that’s has time in with the community to win,” she said.

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