The Sánchez Insurgency

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Photograph by Jared Castaldi

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez woke to the smell of her house burning down. It was around 5:30 a.m. on March 28, 2014, and the Democratic City Councilwoman was in the middle of the bravest and possibly most boneheaded political campaign of her life. She had persuaded her Harvard-educated husband Tomas and three of her bright young Council aides to run against a group of entrenched Democratic incumbents in the General Assembly, even though they had little money, no profile and no meaningful allies.

Democratic Party boss Bob Brady and his ward leaders — especially those from Sánchez’s district — were aggravated. Sánchez had defied the party for years, but this? This was rebellion.

Smoke curled around Norris Square, a Puerto Rican community in North Philly. Sánchez and her husband were staying a few blocks away from their house at the time, at her brother-in-law’s apartment. They’d relocated, in part, because Tomas was challenging State Senator Tina Tartaglione, and Sánchez’s house was just outside Tartaglione’s district, while the brother-in-law’s was not. That maneuver infuriated the ward leaders all the more.

A man knocked on the door. As soon as Sánchez opened it, she knew what had happened. “Please don’t tell me that’s what I’m smelling,” she said aloud, and yelled for her husband. “He just started to cry,” she says. “He didn’t even go down there for hours. He just couldn’t.”

Sánchez, though, bolted down the road in her pajamas. She arrived, panting, and stared at the three-story rowhouse that had been her home for 17 years. It was engulfed in flames. This was where she’d married Tomas, raised her two sons, and built herself into one of the city’s most powerful political figures. Now, the windows were blown out. Her beloved Latino art collection was stained by smoke. Her family photos were melted. “I had been saying, in particular to my son Tomasito, ‘Let’s take a moment and scan all these pictures.’” They never got the chance.

Later that day, police showed her video footage of a possible arsonist. She couldn’t believe who was on the screen. “I was like, ‘This looks like Edwin. But it can’t be Edwin,’” she remembers.

Edwin Diana was a close friend of her oldest son, Edgar. Sánchez had known him since he was a little boy. She had just seen him, actually. “He was on the scene of the fire with us,” she says. “He brought us coffee. He was like, ‘Is there anything you need, Maria?’”

But as Sánchez saw it, there was something even more chilling about Edwin’s face on that grainy video: At the time, Edwin was living with the great-nephew of State Senator Tartaglione, Tomas’s opponent in the upcoming primary election. Sánchez feared that the Tartagliones — a powerful political family — might have been involved. She still has no evidence of that; Diana was convicted of burglary but acquitted of arson. (His lawyer argued that the fire was caused accidentally when Diana lit a candle in the home.) As for the Tartagliones, they adamantly deny any connection to the fire. That didn’t matter to Sánchez. “My son had seen a bunch of stuff in our political lives, but for the first time, I really felt he was scared,” she says.

“I told Tomas, ‘We need to get out of this business. This is not worth it.’” Read more »

Lawmakers Fight for Muslim Holidays to Be Recognized in Philly

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

A group of activists erupted in applause at City Hall Thursday when lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution calling on the city and school district to recognize two Muslim holidays: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. “When we submitted this, the question that came from some good, well-intentioned people was, ‘Well, why now? And should we do this now?'” said Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who sponsored the legislation. “The best time to dispel myths, the best time to find good-spirited people, is in the height of controversy.”

The Philadelphia Eid Coalition has been fighting since last year to convince officials to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The School District of Philadelphia currently closes schools on Christmas, Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and even Columbus Day, but not on those two Muslim holidays. The city government, meanwhile, does not officially recognize either Muslim or Jewish holy days.

Jones, who practices Islam, says it is more important than ever to make Muslim people feel included in Philadelphia.

“Young people needed to know that they’re welcome in this building and in this city,” he said, “so that nobody can come along and lead them astray to some anti-American kind of environment.” Read more »

City Council Women to DA: Fire Porngate Prosecutors

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

This morning, as promised, the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women held a press conference in City Council’s Caucus room in City Hall to release a statement (not a resolution, they were sure to clarify) demanding that the office of Philadelphia DA Seth Williams fire three of its prosectors who were part of the porngate email chain: Frank Fina, Marc Costanzo and Pat Blessington.

The statement, which was signed by all five female Council members, noted that “The emails which these men forwarded reportedly include women in compromising sexual situations with captions indicating advancing in the work place requires such acts, depiction of African American babies as violent from infancy, and stereotyping and ridiculing of gay men.” The statement takes specific aim at Fina, “whose involvement in prosecuting sex crimes makes this behavior all the more disgraceful.” Read more »

Watch Out, Seth Williams

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, center, accompanied by investigators Marc Costanzo, left, and Frank Fina, speaks during a news conference Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, center, accompanied by investigators Marc Costanzo, left, and Frank Fina, speaks during a news conference Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Philadelphia.

The women of the Philadelphia City Council are mad as hell, and they want District Attorney Seth Williams to know they’re not going to take it anymore.

Tomorrow morning, they are planning to join with the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women to denounce “the demeaning, misogynistic and racist emails” exchanged by former state prosecutors who currently work for Williams, according to Philly NOW president Nina Ahmad.

Ahmad said all of the women members of City Council have signed onto a statement condemning the dissemination of the “Porngate” emails. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez confirmed this. Sánchez also said prosecutors in the email chain should be fired.

“These people make judgement calls on people’s lives every single day,” said Sánchez. “There’s so much questioning of our judicial system, from the police to the attorney general, and we don’t need to further complicate that with the perception that people making decisions about which cases go to trial think it’s okay to do what they did.”

This is a huge, huge deal. The fact that all of the women on City Council are holding Williams’ feet to the fire … well, that’s a lot of political pressure. And it’s just as interesting that Democrats on Council are calling out another member of their party. Read more »

The Weekly Brief: How 83 Aliens Are Voting in Philly

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1. There Are Dozens of Adarians Registered to Vote in Philly

The gist: Ever heard of Adarians? Oh, you haven’t? Weird. They’re a “species of bipedal humanoids from the planet Adari in the Inner Rim of the galaxy,” according to Wookieepedia, a/k/a/ the Star Wars wiki. They made an appearance in the comic-book adaptation of the Stars Wars novel “The Last Command.” They look nothing like the green guy in that photo above (apologies, Star Wars fans). And, according to an article in the Philadelphia Daily News, there are 83 of them registered to vote in Philly, and 206 signed up throughout the rest of Pennsylvania. Read more »

Why Voter Turnout Sucked in Philly’s Mayoral Race

APTOPIX America Votes

Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

1. Voter turnout in Philadelphia wasn’t always so pitiful.

The gist: Only 27 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Philadelphia’s mayoral primary last week. It wasn’t always like this. In 1991, 49 percent of Philly voters came to the polls. In 1987, 67 percent did; in 1971, a stunning 77 percent did. Other big cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have also seen voter turnout plummet in municipal elections over the past few decades. CityLab’s Daniel Denvir has a theory about why that may be: Read more »

John Street: Re-Elect the “Relentless” Maria Quiñones-Sanchez

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(Editor’s note: This is an op-ed from former Mayor John F. Street.)

It has been 35 years since I was sworn in as a member of the City Council of Philadelphia.

The president of the country was Jimmy Carter. The outgoing mayor was Frank Rizzo. The Council president was George X. Schwartz. Some of you just might recognize some of those names. Seems like another life.

I came into office thinking the city’s most pressing problem was blight and deteriorating neighborhoods. Sadly, notwithstanding a major offensive against this problem by successive administrations our city’s most difficult and persistent problem is still with us – BLIGHT.

Fortunately we have Councilwomen Maria Quiñones-Sanchez to continue the fight against this city’s most pervasive problem. Read more »

The Brief: Why the “Philly Is Baltimore” Protest Was Mostly Peaceful

The "Philly Is Baltimore" protest | Photo by Victor Fiorillo

A scene from the “Philly Is Baltimore” protest | Photo by Victor Fiorillo

1. The “Philly Is Baltimore” Protest Was “Tensely Peaceful,” and That’s a Good Thing

The Gist: After riots and looting broke out this week in Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, state Sen. Anthony Williams said Philadelphia is “sitting on a powder keg.” District Attorney Seth Williams said “at any given time, anything could happen.” Thankfully, though, Thursday’s “Philly Is Baltimore” protest was, according to news reports, largely peaceful. Philadelphia magazine’s Victor Fiorillo, who was there, called it “tensely peaceful” and said “as of 11 p.m., we’d only heard about a handful of arrests.”

Read more »

The Brief: Dems Ditch Council Candidate with Crazy Facebook Page

Manny Morales Facebook Page

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It seems even Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee has its limits.

Manny Morales, who is challenging 7th district City Council incumbent, Maria Quiñones Sánchez no longer has the blessing of party elders, who withdrew their support two days after Sánchez posted screen captures of some pretty out-there ravings on the Manny Morales Facebook page. Read more »

The Brief: Why Have City Dems Endorsed a Council Candidate Whose Facebook Page Compared Gay Men to Flatworms?

Maria Quinones-Sanchez | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Maria Quinones-Sanchez. Not the tapeworm candidate. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

María Quiñones-Sánchez is one of the more consequential members of Philadelphia’s City Council. She was the driving force behind the new land bank. She’s gotten major small business-friendly tax reform legislation enacted. She just pushed through a charter amendment that, if approved by voters, would require all city departments and agencies to have plans in place to serve city residents who don’t speak English. And that’s to name just a few of her accomplishments. Read more »

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