Cheri Honkala was curling her hair and setting aside a McDonald’s oatmeal that she paid for in change Friday morning in an office on the second floor of a church building at Sixth and Venango streets in North Philadelphia. On the walls were hand-written posters of the names of people volunteering for her, and below her was a church basement where she’d later hold a press conference with more endorsers (four) than reporters (approximately one).
And Friday morning, she was rattling off every street corner in the neighborhood that she’s slept on with the homeless.
Honkala, a 54-year-old Green Party politician and staunch anti-poverty advocate, is not a polished politician or a member of Philadelphia’s class of elite Democratic pols. But she is running as one of the write-in candidates for a state House seat representing North Philly’s 197th District where a special election will take place tomorrow. There’s a lot working against Honkala, including a public perception that’s she’s a little unhinged. Yet she still says she has an exact plan — an agenda, if you will — that starts the day after she wins the election and includes her driving around in a van and picking up every homeless person she sees to find them a place to stay.
But the saga of how Honkala became a write-in candidate (and maybe even a front-runner) has been nothing short of a soap opera. Here’s the abridged version: There was a state representative convicted of corruption. He was replaced by another state representative. She also became a convicted felon. Now the seat’s open after she was forced to resign. The only candidate actually on the ballot is a Republican, largely because the Democrat chosen by the party to run doesn’t actually live in the district. Honkala isn’t on the ballot, either. Her campaign failed to turn in her nomination paperwork on time.
So the 197th District, a heavily Latino district where 85 percent of voters are Democrats, is choosing tomorrow between Republican candidate Lucinda Little on the ballot or writing in someone, including Honkala, the Green Party firebrand who’s made a name for herself by antagonizing Philadelphia Democrats. It’s the Green Party affiliation that leads her to talk about social justice and accessible housing and poverty more than most politicians. And it’s also why she talks more than most about whether or not she can win fair and square.
“You know I’m running against all the cats, and I’m a mouse. So that’s dangerous business,” she said. “Because the cats can just eat the mouse.”
Honkala, who was former presidential candidate Jill Stein’s running mate in 2012, has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, and says she’s confident her message of eradicating homelessness, hunger and poverty will resonate. But she also knows that in a special election where just a few thousand votes will be cast, the difference could be made by just a few hundred people. She knows how hard it is run — and win — as a write-in.
She also has serious concerns about the “integrity” of the elections process, peddling theories about when and how the Democratic party might try to screw her out of a win, saying “the ‘machine’ controls all the institutions… and I’m just Cheri.”
That’s why Honkala’s campaign and the Green Party of Pennsylvania will be armed with a team of lawyers tomorrow, ready to take on questions of election integrity the same way Stein did when she worked for weeks to secure a nationwide recount of the presidential election. And Honkala is no stranger to the political process, or the tactics used in the past to draw voters in this neighborhood, many of whom are either bilingual or speak only Spanish, to the polls.
Instead, Honkala has a team of about 50 volunteers who have been knocking on doors for weeks and will continue to throughout the day tomorrow to draw people to polls by telling them about the work Honkala has done in the neighborhood, including setting up bunk beds in her own home to welcome the homeless and creating the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in the early ’90s.
The social justice group was made up of people fighting poverty, and faced serious criticism for its tactics. In 1996, Honkala led a group that staged a sit-in in Harrisburg against proposed cuts by former Gov. Tom Ridge. She was later arrested and charged with trespassing after building dwellings for the homeless on a random unused lot.
Then she became an almost perennial political candidate, running for sheriff in 2011 and then of course again as Stein’s running mate in 2012. She feels like now is her time to get that little bit of power she’s been craving to get to Harrisburg and, as she said, shake things up.
“People are very aware of the fact that when you get to know Cheri, there’s a chip on that shoulder,” she admitted, adding: “There’s so much pressure to not tell the truth. Because with me, they say ‘well Cheri, you’re telling the truth, so that makes you a non-team player.’ You know, the political elite in Philadelphia. And so they try to marginalize me and make me into a nutcase.”
So Honkala isn’t confident in the elections process in North Philly. But she is confident in the coalition she’s formed, and has a specific plan laid out that she says will begin the day after she wins, whenever that is (it’ll likely take several days to count the ballots).
As she described in Reddit AMA (yeah, you read that right) with a pro-Bernie Sanders group, she actually does plan to drive around the neighborhood the day after she’s elected to pick up the homeless and then work with agencies to get them housing. If shelters in the city are full, she says she’ll open up her home and office to the people who aren’t placed.
She’s also promised to donate her $157-per-day per diem that legislators get to work in Harrisburg to purchasing food for people in her district, one of the poorest in the state of Pennsylvania. And if elected, she’ll continue throughout her term to keep her home and offices open to the homeless in both Philadelphia and Harrisburg, as she’s done for years — whether the political elite like it or not.
Her vows sound like an election time gimmick. Honkala, who talks about homelessness the way some politicians talk about drugs or guns, says not so.
“I will institute a policy of zero tolerance for homelessness,” she said. “And I’ll start with the person that’s sleeping in the park outside my window.”