The 2016 political race that could make or break the barrio
There was an unusual scene at Taller Puertoriqqueño back in late November. A group of North Philadelphia politicos huddled together in a cramped room to rally behind debt-crushed Puerto Rico. They were announcing a joint visit to Congress where they would lobby for the U.S. territory to restructure its debt. That much made sense. What made less sense were three of the supposed allies sharing that stage — 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and State Reps. Angel Cruz and Leslie Acosta.
The councilwoman and Cruz are well-known adversaries, their feud both political and personal. Accusations and insults fly between them both on and off the record. The root of their conflict would take thousands of words to unpack, so for now, suffice it to say that something benign as sharing a stage in their overlapping districts could end in heated exchange. Add Acosta into the mix and it gets even more complicated.
Cruz, Acosta and Quiñones-Sánchez share a political party (Democrat), a heritage (Puerto Rican), a hometown (the Latino-majority neighborhoods of North Philadelphia) and a grave number of problems in their districts (deep poverty, unemployment and crime, to name a few). And for the last eight years, they’ve been trying to keep each other out of elected office.
This year, Cruz and Acosta are up for reelection in the PA House of Representatives race.
If Quiñones-Sánchez backs other candidates against them as she has in the past, it would mean that their feud carries into another term — at the expense of their constituents, critics add. But if the three make amends, we might see something like unity among the city’s highest ranking Latino legislators for the first time in recent memory.
History would suggest conflict
In the recent 2015 primary election, a virtual unknown named Manny Morales challenged Quiñones-Sánchez for her council seat. Backing Morales was Latinos United for Political Empowerment (LUPE), a fledgling political action committee that was chaired, at the time, by Cruz and Acosta. Quiñones-Sánchez secured her reelection, but not by a comfortable margin.
Rewind to 2014, when Quiñones-Sánchez pulled more or less the same powerplay. Flexing muscle behind a political action committee called Latino Empowerment Alliance of the Delaware Valley (LEAD), she endorsed four candidates — one of which was her husband, two of which were former council staffers. The two staffers squared off against Cruz and Acosta in the last House of Representatives race. The councilwoman backed Danilo Burgos in the competitive District 197 race, which Acosta ended up clinching. She also backed Quetcy Lozada against Cruz in the District 180 race, in which Cruz was reelected by a landslide.
Rewind again for a familiar showdown. It was 1994. Former City Councilman Angel Ortiz ran another Latino candidate, Benjamin Ramos, against former State Rep. Ralph Acosta (Leslie Acosta's father) in the District 180 race. The two incumbents had at one time supported each other before their feud exploded before the public's eyes. Power changed hands. Problems carried on.
The alliances change with each election. Most recently, Quiñones-Sánchez and her former opponent Danny Savage, leader of the 23rd Ward, came into good terms. In the other corner, longtime enemies Cruz and 7th Ward Leader Carlos Matos have teamed up again.
Quiñones-Sánchez has now won all three of her district council elections with neither the support of the city’s Democratic machine (which supports Cruz) nor the majority of her ward leaders. In terms of influential backing, however, she has won immense favor among citywide officials. Two former Philly mayors have even said they think she’ll be mayor one day.
Who knows where the cards will fall in upcoming months, but don’t be surprised if some familiar names jump into the race. If Burgos and Lozada consider running again, it would put the political football ball back in the Quiñones-Sánchez’s hands.
A new episode, or a rerun?
Quiñones-Sánchez doesn’t see a path to victory for Burgos this time around, she said in an interview with AL DÍA. While she wouldn’t discourage him from running again, it’s not a situation she wants to be in. Even so, that wouldn’t necessarily mean an endorsement for Acosta. Quiñones-Sánchez said that she fears such an endorsement might lead to an even more entangled war, one that could hurt Acosta’s chances at reelection: “If [Cruz and Matos] even suspected that [Acosta and I] are going to work well together, they would come after her.”
After the most recent blowout, Acosta said that she welcomes a new relationship going forward. Both sides concede that it would be both “crazy” and bad optics for the city’s only two elected Latinas to stay at odds. And from numerous interviews with candidates, it’s clear that the Acosta-Quiñones rift could be closed one day soon, if not during this election.
“I have seen an effort unlike what I’ve seen in other places,” Quiñones-Sánchez said of Acosta. “As a Puerto Rican Latina woman, I would hope that I would not be put in a situation where the petty politics forces us to be in a constant battle.”
Cruz and the Councilwoman are another story. Quiñones-Sánchez said that the only battle she would “go into blindly” would be if Lozada wanted to take Cruz on again this year.
If the councilwoman decides to back a bid against him, Cruz said he’ll do whatever it takes. But he also welcomes burying the hatchet.
“If she wants unity, extend the olive branch,” he told AL DÍA.
Unity doesn’t necessarily have to be a handholding affair. The absurdity of this political logjam is that there’s more than enough work to get done, and not enough resources to do it. The 7th District is unique in that it is one of — if not the only — councilmanic district without an anchor of considerable wealth. (Ditto for Cruz and Acosta’s districts.) Unity, then, could simply mean not stepping on each other’s toes as they try to bring in much-needed economic opportunity.
“We don’t have to get along, but we have to work together to ensure that services are being provided to the people who elected us,” Acosta said.
And of course, not ginning up competition against each other helps the healing process.
“I’m not saying no to anything,” Cruz said of his relationship with Quiñones-Sánchez. “We don’t have to like each other. But you do your thing and don’t run anybody against me. I do my thing and don’t run anybody against you.”