Philly’s Democratic party usually throws its support behind incumbents when they run for re-election. Unless you’re Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

By a 2-to-1 ratio, Democratic ward leaders in North Philly’s 7th District voted Tuesday afternoon to back state Rep. Angel Cruz’s bid against Quiñones-Sánchez in the upcoming May primary. This election will officially mark the Hunting Park native’s fourth time running without the support of the local party.

Is MQS really that unpopular with her fellow Democrats? It depends on who you ask.

Party bosses like former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady regularly defer to the city’s 66 ward leaders to make endorsements in district races. For the three-term councilwoman, that’s bad news. She’s long been at odds with some of the most powerful ward leaders in her district. To skew the math further, her challenger Cruz is one of them.

‘She had four years to make peace’

The party’s endorsement is a path to resources, including support for get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.

Some might argue that Quiñones-Sánchez, 50, has more citywide clout than her opponent, but history shows it doesn’t necessarily translate. In 2015, the party-backed Democratic challenger was a political nobody whose campaign was dogged by his history of racist and homophobic social media posts, yet Quiñones-Sánchez won by just a 850-vote margin.

At Wednesday’s endorsement meeting at the party headquarters, both candidates made brief stump speeches. Four ward leaders took the incumbent’s corner, while eight went for Cruz — including Cruz himself.

That’s fully allowed under the Democratic party’s bylaws. Cruz, 53, is one of more than a dozen high-ranking officials who double as ward leaders across the city.

Cruz’s ward in Kensington and Fairhill contains 23 of the district’s 150-some divisions — which, he noted, wouldn’t have been enough to sway the vote on their own.

“Even if I had abstained, I still would have had enough,” Cruz said.

He also made it clear that even if he wasn’t running himself, he would not support the sitting councilwoman. He has repeatedly criticized her as an unwilling collaborator, while portraying himself as a team player — one with legislative experience in both City Hall and Harrisburg.

“She had four years to make peace with the ward leaders,” Cruz said, implying a failure on Quiñones-Sánchez’s part. “I can bring people together.”

The four ward leaders who backed Quiñones-Sánchez were Alan Butkovitz, Tim Savage, Emilio Vazquez and Sharon Vaughn. All told, their votes comprised about a third of the divisions in the district.

‘In the pocket’ of Local 98?

In a statement responding to the party’s endorsement, Quiñones-Sánchez’s campaign called Cruz “a figure tainted by corruption scandals and in the pocket of the indicted leaders of Local 98.”

Cruz was not named in the bombshell federal indictment handed down against Councilman Bobby Henon and other Local 98 electrician’s union officials last month. But like many pols in the city, he has benefited from the union’s considerable largesse over the years — both as an elected official and as a ward leader.

The union played a shadowy role in the 7th District showdown in 2015.

Through a political action committee called LUPE, Cruz and other leaders in North Philly’s Latino strongholds sought to unseat Quiñones-Sánchez by backing Democrat Manny Morales. Local 98’s political arm channeled more than $100,000 to both ward leaders and the PAC, which was used to support Morales. The multi-pronged arrangement eventually resulted in numerous violations for excessive campaign contributions and a fine with the city’s ethics board.

“My refusal to play along with the corrupt political establishment in the barrio has once again led to the party leadership not supporting my candidacy,” said Quiñones-Sánchez in a statement.

While casting herself as an underdog fighting against Democratic machine, the councilwoman’s statement also alluded to past voter fraud and election data irregularities in her district. She asked for heightened election day monitoring in the district on the basis that the 2015 election saw “nearly 1,000 voter assist requests” in the 7th District “compared to fewer than 100” citywide.

In a statement, the councilwoman also called on federal prosecutors to release any information about Local 98’s influence in that last district race — and asked union officials to not give any money to Cruz.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...