It’s a really hard time to be a Latina and a local politics wonk.
Leslie Acosta — one of two Latino state lawmakers from Philly, and the only Latina in the state legislature — has been convicted of conspiring to commit money laundering. She hasn’t been sentenced yet, and is reportedly cooperating with the prosecution of Renee Tartaglione, her former boss at a Fairhill mental health clinic who has been charged by the feds with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funding. (Tartaglione has pleaded not guilty.)
Acosta is the daughter of a politician, as is Tartaglione, and both are heavily enmeshed in legacy politics that seem as unscrupulous as they are melodramatic: full of feuds and deals cut over the Puerto Rican version of a cortadito.
Now, the thing about Acosta is that she had appeared, mostly, to be above the mischief and trash talk of Barrio politics, and came off as earnest, thoughtful and affable. So much so, in fact, that it began to appear possible that there would be some sort of détente enacted between the Democratic machine-backed Acosta and the fiercely independent councilwoman the Democratic machine loves to hate, María Quiñones-Sánchez.
But the promise Acosta offered — and the possibility of two industrious Latina pols working in concert to better the lot of some of the poorest residents of the city — has gone up in smoke.
As a Latina who writes about a Latinx community that is too often neglected and far too often underestimated, the disappointment I feel is more than just personal.
Of course, accusations of criminal behavior and political shenanigans aren’t limited to El Barrio, but we Latinxs have been slow to accrue political capital — or credibility — in the city and state. Acosta has embarrassed our hope for her, and for what she might have meant in terms of Latinx advancement and integrity in the political arena.
And the fight to find her replacement doesn’t look promising, either.
The Democratic machine’s Latinx pols, state Rep. Ángel Cruz and Tartaglione’s husband and 19th Ward leader, Carlos Matos, are throwing their support behind Noelia Díaz, according to City and State PA. Díaz’s sole claim to fame seems to be that she campaigned for Manny Morales — the would-be politician who didn’t have enough political sense to delete racist and homophobic “jokes” from his Facebook page before he ran for office, nor the rectitude to not post them at all.
City and State PA also reports that Quiñones-Sánchez’s husband, Tomás Sánchez, may consider running, as may Danilo Burgos, who unsuccessfully ran against Acosta in 2014.
And even Juan Rodriguez, who is probably best remembered from the mayoral primary when his short-lived candidacy was allegedly launched at a strip club, posted a message to a Latinx Facebook group indicating he intends to vie for Acosta’s seat.
But the disheartening nature of local politicking for Latinxs neither begins nor ends in El Barrio.
Take Republican state Rep. Martina White.
The first-term legislator is probably best known for House Bill 1885, which proposes to establish unusually punitive criminal and economic sanctions against any sanctuary city in Pennsylvania. The bill she authored just passed out of committee September 20th, and if it gains enough steam in the Republican legislature, its passage will make the undocumented victims of crime — and witnesses to crimes — far less likely to come forward to police for fear of being turned over to immigration authorities.
Far from what White claims — that the bill will strengthen public safety — it will make Philadelphia a much less safe place for everyone. Latinxs, me included, have criticized White for that, for her association with Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (a proponent of rescinding 14th Amendment jus soli citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants), and for shoring up her arguments with statistics generated by an organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In April, she was caught on video yelling and freaking out when immigration advocates visited her office in Harrisburg. “Once it got to the point where they were saying I’m a racist, and my bill’s racist, I just think that’s inappropriate and completely uncalled for,” she told Brian Hickey of Philly Voice. “It was certainly frightening having that many people in a confined space being opposed to my viewpoint.”
Would White would have reacted the same way if those in her office were white rather than “brown”? None of us can say for sure, but we can catch a glimpse at who White believes she’s serving in an ad she’s running for her reelection bid.
Here it is. I’ll wait while you watch it.
White’s world is white. Everyone in the ad is white-appearing. No African-Americans, no non-white Latinxs, no Asian Americans visible.
White’s district, State House District 170, is 73.6 percent white. But it is also 10.3 percent Asian, 8.3 percent Black, 6.4 percent Latinx and 1 percent mixed race. That is more than a quarter of White’s constituents who she doesn’t see (or doesn’t want to see) in her ads. And at the ballot box?
I can’t help but think that inclusion — or the lack thereof — is exactly what those immigration advocates were in White’s office to talk about when the state Rep. started feeling frightened enough to freak out.
It’s sad. It’s disheartening. It’s Philadelphia politics.
Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian US, City & State, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.