by Ann Garrison

Growing up in District 197 means exposure to poverty and to all sorts of ways of fighting back, thanks to Cheri Honkala and the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Human Rights.

In 2017, Cheri Honkala, the founder of the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Human Rights, ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s District 197. I spoke to her about what happened.

Ann Garrison: Cheri, tell us about the state office race that you were told you had lost.

Cheri Honkala: It was a special election last year for a representative to the Pennsylvania State House. On the night of the election, there were literally hundreds of calls to our campaign headquarters and the district attorney’s office about election fraud. And I’m sorry to report that the same political machine that was responsible is alive and well today.

AG: What were the calls on election night about?

Cheri Honkala: People reported being intimidated, harassed, threatened and told not to vote for me. They complained that voting machines were turned off, that people were getting paid to vote for the Democrat, and that just about every other kind of corruption you could imagine was going on.

So we took the case to federal court, but because we no longer had any money, we couldn’t continue it. We tried to get the ACLU to take on the case or help us get someone else that believes in voting rights to take it.

Now we’re waiting to hear back from the Center for Constitutional Rights because we haven’t heard back from the ACLU. In the meantime, two people have pled guilty. The last person just pled guilty to felony election fraud charges of tampering with both the machines and the public record.

AG: So does this mean that the DA looked into it even though you haven’t been able to keep litigating?

CA: Yes, the DA looked into it, but the people that have been indicted are at the absolute bottom of the chain. They in no way are the ones that orchestrated all the voting fraud in the 197.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office and the district attorney say the feds are now involved and that there will be other charges. And there’s another criminal case coming up on June 26th.

However, the judge is frustrated because one of the attorneys for this upcoming case has failed to show up in court three times, and we’re sure that’s because the Democrats didn’t want anyone reporting on it before the May 15 primary elections.

AG: Tell me what you expect from those primaries.

CH: I’m expecting that the person that wins will be the person selected by the five Democrats that have decided elections in Pennsylvania’s 197 for more than a decade. All of our elections are tied to clinics and the use of cash to bribe voters and election officials. The Democrats also control the tables inside the election booth.

AG: OK. Could you describe the 197?

CH: It’s the poorest district in the state of Pennsylvania, and we’re never going to end the poverty, hunger, homelessness or drug crisis so long as some people benefit from all that and a handful of Democrats choose who’s going to represent us.

AG: Who benefits?

CH: I can’t name any names. Anybody out there who wants to know should Google “Pennsylvania 197” and “corruption” to find names. I have to be careful now because my car and my campaign manager’s car were both totaled right after we filed our suit in federal court.

So we have to take this very seriously. We have to make sure that our families are safe, but people can put two and two together. Newspapers have published names several times.

AG: What do you mean by “clinics”?

CH: Well, we call them pill mills. They’re public clinics for people who have mental health issues. The people who go to them are supposed to get counseling and help with withdrawal from drug addiction, but the clinics prescribe pills like oxycodone and Xanax and antidepressant drugs.

Before the election, they were selling lists of names of people registered in the clinics that they prescribe drugs to. Then on election day the people who bought the lists were paying people to go use the names on the list to vote.

AG: The Democrats who were stealing the election paid people to show up and use the addicts’ names to vote because they knew the addicts wouldn’t manage to make it to the polls?

CH: Correct.

AG: Wow. That’s sick and twisted. Have you lived in District 197 all your life?

CH: I’ve lived in the 197 for 30 years now. The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is as well known as McDonald’s here, and I had a really good ground game. I ran as a Green, and I was the first person to be endorsed by the Green Party and the Bernie Sanders organization Our Revolution.

For every five to 10 people the Democrats had observing outside a polling station, we had twice as many there. We had raised $100,000 in two months in increments of $20.

And it’s not just us saying that the election was taken from us. We’ll find out who is responsible for this unjust appointment to our state representative’s seat when the Attorney General’s Office and the DA’s Office and the judge begin to sentence people for felony fraud charges.

AG: Why do you say “appointment”?

CH: Because we know that, in our neighborhoods, it’s a handful of Democrats who get together and decide the election. It has nothing to do with us going into the voting booths and deciding who our state representative will be. They’ll get together and make a decision. And they know that Emilio Vazquez is getting a lot of bad press right now, so they’re shifting over to a different candidate.

AG: So they decide who’s going to be elected and then they put their names on the ballot and do whatever it takes to make sure they win.

CH: That’s correct.

AG: You told me last year that someone said to you, “Cheri, you’d be a shoo-in if you just ran as a Democrat.” Who said that to you?

CH: Congressman Bill Brady who represents Congressional District 1 was one of the people who told me that. Now he’s about to step down.

AG: Why is he stepping down?

CH: He said he wanted to retire, but it’s recently come out that he’s under investigation for allegedly paying $90,000 to not have an African American run against him. He’s still in charge of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania.

AG: Is his Congressional District, District 1, majority African American?

CH: It’s more than 45 percent African American.

AG: And what about the 197?

CH: It’s majority African American and Latino. It’s a melting pot for the poorest of the poor in the state, and the poverty keeps getting worse. Congressman Brady called to tell me that if I would change parties, I could become our state representative, but I was running as a Green and I said no. I heard that Congressman Brady called the Republican in the race and made the same offer.

There were a lot of challenges and suspicion that none of the candidates besides me actually lived in the 197. I’ve gone through a serious loss of innocence by learning that a group of Democrats and committee people don’t actually live in the districts they’re supposed to represent.

AG: Democratic Party committees?

CH: Yeah. One of the things that we did after we decided to take this thing to federal court was to match the money that the city gives to the people to work the tables inside the polling stations versus those who were elected to be inside the polling stations. And I was flabbergasted. Only one person who was elected to be in there actually was.

AG: So you get to vote for the people who are supposed to assure a fair election?

CH: Yeah. We get to vote for the election judges and then there’s supposed to be, based on whoever is on the ballot, representation from the Democratic Party and any minority parties inside the polling stations. I got a call this morning, from a newly elected Green, who went to pick up the voting box for tomorrow’s election day [May 15] and she was told they had no idea where the box was.

AG: What about the former representative? I think you ran for the seat of a state representative who had to resign because of corruption. Right?

CH: Yeah, Leslie Acosta.

AG: Did Leslie Acosta live in the district? Or did she just keep an address in the district?

CH: She kept an address here.

AG: Okay, last question. In spite of everything you have to deal with there in the 197 – poverty, violence, homelessness and drug addiction – you joined the steering committee of the Women’s March on the Pentagon planned for Oct. 21 and 22. Could you tell us why you did that?

CH: I joined the steering committee because I saw the march as a chance to address the real issues of war abroad and violence on the front lines in our own communities, and to say what we’re not supposed to say out loud – that the Democrats support war. We can’t run and hide from that.

It’s not the progressive party because it supports war. As long as we continue to accept what’s really a one-party system – the Democratic and Republican duopoly – we’re really in trouble. The corporations are going to keep us engaged in all these wars and they’re not going to do anything about poverty, hunger and homelessness.

If we want to end the war at home and abroad, we need to support the development of an independent political party. It’s time for us to grow up and join the rest of the world that has several different political parties.

Cheri Honkala is the founder of the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Human Rights, which began in Pennsylvania’s District 197 and then became a national organization.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison or ann@kpfa.org.

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