The next Acosta
It’s 91 degrees outside the Save-A-Lot on Lehigh Avenue as Leslie Acosta talks through the finer rights of prison visitation.
A woman who lives in the area says the prison won’t let her see her fiancé, who may or may not be on restrictions for bad behavior. Her questions have gone unanswered. Acosta, the newly minted State Representative in the 197th district, pools experience with her colleagues. They offer suggestions and phone calls on the distraught woman’s behalf.
Acosta’s office has a blue foldout information table set up next to the supermarket’s sliding doors: a flyer for an affordable housing expo; a crime prevention guide; voter registration forms; PennDot FAQs about driver’s licenses printed in English and Spanish. Spread out here are the everyday problems for the 197’s residents, who can talk through them right here next to the shopping carts. You’d be amazed at how many calls they get from residents who just need help understanding their bills.
“We have to bring the office to the community,” Acosta says. “Not all people can get to us.”
Harrisburg is slow in the late summer. There is one last house session this week, and then a break until the end of September. Like many other state legislators, Acosta is back in her community doing constituent service work. But perhaps unlike the others, she hears a clock ticking in the background. She needs to hurry.
Moving the needle
Life isn’t lush in the 197, a split Latino and African American district that cuts across both sides of Broad Street in North Philadelphia. It contains part of Philadelphia’s most destitute area code, 19133, with a median income of less than $15,000. But that number doesn’t really do the struggle justice. Overall, Acosta’s district struggles with a 10 percent unemployment rate (about 6,000 people) and a 71 percent high school dropout rate. More than one in three people in her district are currently or were formerly incarcerated. With a dark absence of economic opportunities, something as simple as the new Burger King on 7th Street and Lehigh Avenue can be an asset. It means a few more jobs for the community. It means one less vacant parcel of land.
“This district, even though it has its challenges, it also has its strengths,” Acosta says. “I’m moving very fast at this because we’ve only got two years. But there’s a sense of urgency in this community. There’s a lot of need. We’ve got to move the needle on poverty.”
Once she took office January, 2015, Acosta focused immediately on a one-term plan to tackle education, economic development, and legislative action. One of her campaign promises was to cut the unemployment rate down by five percent in this short window of time. But where will the jobs come from? That’s where her first major piece of legislation — the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act (H.B. 1467) — hopes to help. It would prevent employers from asking potential employers about certain parts of a criminal record, like expunged or pardoned cases, and thus hopefully help a lot of Acosta’s residents get back into the workforce.
There’s a lot of untapped potential in the district, including Historical sites like the Uptown Theater and the Fairhill Burial Ground. Moreover, the district has a lot of industrial-zoned areas, but North Philadelphia isn’t on track to bring back the manufacturing jobs it lost in the mid-20th century any time soon. Lately, much of the development has been commercial. There’s a $16 million strip mall project at 5th and Allegheny that should provide 150 jobs, Acosta says. And in the meantime, she is working on a public-private partnership to provide vocational job skills training.
It’s a lot to accomplish in two years. If Acosta is going to begin lifting this area from its mire, she’s going to have to do things differently. She wouldn’t be the first politician to have tried and failed.
The second generation of Latino politics
Acosta grew up around 2nd Street & Lehigh Avenue in West Kensington, the daughter of Rafael “Ralph” Acosta. She remembers being eight years-old and going to protests with her father, carrying signs that read “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“The people united will never be defeated,” a well-known revolutionary phrase in Spanish). One time they picketed Episcopal Hospital for malpractice. They boycotted businesses for discriminating against African Americans and Latinos in the workplace. Politics was never far from the dinner table.
“I grew up in an environment and a family where you had to fight to get respect,” Acosta says.
In 1984, when her father was elected as a state representative for the 180th District, the fight for Latino representation gained legitimacy. He was the first Latino sworn into the Pennsylvania State legislature, and remained the only one for nearly a decade in office. Twenty years later, his daughter continued the family legacy by earning the title of first Latina.
Acosta was confronted in 2013 by her father and mother about the open seat in the state house. For years prior, she had jobs as a social worker and then as a defense contractor. She had just gotten a promotion after sealing an $18 billion deal. Who would leave that to go into local politics? It didn’t matter. People who know Ralph Acosta know you can’t tell him no. He told her she was going to run, he was going to help her campaign, and she was going to win the election. And it happened.
“It just so happened all of the supervoters remembered Ralph,” said Wayne Jacobs, the executive director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment. “I took her [Leslie] on the west side of Broad Street and said ‘this is Ralph Acosta’s daughter,’ and they said oh yeah, how’s your father?’”
Jacobs, 65, knew Ralph Acosta from the 1970s before he became the elected Harrisburg official. Jacobs says he was “one of the guys in the crowd” at the time, watching history happen. On the predominantly Black west side of Broad Street, Jacobs and others knew Ralph by another name: “the Puerto-Rican Milton Street.”
At that time, the issues that Latino and Black activists faced were not so different from those today — affordable housing, discrimination and police brutality to name a few. But as quick as Ralph Acosta rose to the top, he lost favor among the communities. His methods were often bullish. He brawled in City Council. He feuded with fellow Latino leaders and barrio residents. Critics in the community came to see him as “too abrasive, too volatile and increasingly too isolated to remain in office,” the Inquirer wrote in 1992.
“My father was really radical,” Leslie Acosta says. “I’m not as radical as my dad. He was radical in a good way, because back then Latinos and African Americans were left out completely. They weren’t going to get noticed.”
The first wave had to bang a war drum and make demands to get recognition. But now that the Latino community is an established apparatus of Philly’s political machine, Leslie Acosta can see the mistakes of the past. She calls for a more even-keeled approach, “to sit down with people of power and negotiate, and not be antagonistic, not be abrasive and nasty and demanding.”
History can’t repeat itself
Back outside the Save-A-Lot, Leslie Acosta high-fives a colleague. They just got a phone call. No, still no answers from the prison. But PECO donated 300 bookbags for Acosta’s back-to-school supply drive, and every one of them will be put to good use.
Even if they left scars in the process, the Latino political community emerged thanks to the first generation of trailblazers like Ralph Acosta, Ángel Ortiz (the city’s first Latino city councilman), and Benjamin Ramos (the State Rep. who ousted Acosta in ‘94). “All those folks really set the stage for folks like myself, for folks like Maria Quiñones,” Acosta says.
But unlike their Black contemporaries, Latinos have gained far less political clout over the last 40 years. Since Wilson Goode, Sr., was elected mayor in 1983, the Black voting bloc has snowballed into a political presence that actually represents their numeric size in the city. Meanwhile, just one of 17 city councilmembers is Latino, and just two of Philly’s 35 state legislative seats (the other one held by current 180th State Rep. Ángel Cruz). Philadelphia has never had a Latino mayor.
There are a number of reasons why, and anyone who follows Latino politics know them. The gerrymandering of districts has fragmented Latino voters over the past three decades. And partially because of this, the Latino voting bloc remains less impressive than it is in other parts of the U.S. (Not to mention Puerto Rico, which boasts an 85 percent voter turnout on election day).
But political unity — even temporary unity — has been one of the biggest barriers.
“It’s important for the Latino leadership, which is few and in between, to come together and learn how to set personality conflicts aside. 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 into office.”
After 10 years in office, Ralph Acosta was criticized for having done little for the community. Similar allegations are already being leveled at the second wave of Latino politicians. Their legislative domains are among the toughest. Not only do they bear some of the city’s most concentrated poverty, but also include some of the busiest drug markets and most violent police districts in the whole country. It’s easy to shirk blame on City Hall or even the Republican-controlled legislature, but Acosta has other things on her agenda. The clock is still ticking.
“I’m making a call to all the Latino leaders who call themselves leaders in this community,” Acosta went on. “I’m making a call today.”