Rough and tumble North Philadelphia primary sparks criminal probe

    A bitterly-fought legislative primary last month has spurred a criminal investigation into charges of voter intimidation and Election Day fraud.

    Philadelphia’s Latino community has seen some rough and tumble elections in recent years. A bitterly-fought legislative primary last month has spurred a criminal investigation into charges of voter intimidation and Election Day fraud.

    [AUDIO:20100603DDRAMOS.mp3]

    When retired police officer Jonathan Ramos took on incumbent State Representative Angel Cruz in the Democratic primary, he knew he was in for a battle. But he said what he witnessed on Election Day was sickening.

    “The conduct that I seen was thuggerism, intimidation,” said Ramos. “Just blatant, cocky stealing of the vote – like they don’t care. Who cares about this community? Nobody cares.”

    Standing outside Cruz’s office with supporters a week after the election, Ramos said he isn’t contesting the outcome – a narrow win for Cruz. But Ramos said he wants a serious investigation of what happened on Election Day. He says Cruz traveled the district with a muscle-bound entourage, illegally entering polling places, intimidating voters and sometimes crowding into voting booths uninvited to “assist” voters cast their ballots.

    Mounted on poster board were two pictures of Cruz in a polling place – in one he’s standing with a voter in the booth. Carlos Lopez said he snapped the picture at his polling place on Somerset Avenue.

    “I saw Angel Cruz come in,” said Lopez, “and he went over to help a constituent to vote for himself. So he literally pushed the button and then left out. That’s when I took the two pictures because I knew he wasn’t supposed to be there.”

    Because Cruz didn’t have a poll watcher’s certificate, he wasn’t permitted in any polling place, except to cast his own ballot.

    Lopez was one of seven poll workers and poll watchers who gave first hand accounts of intimidation, and allegedly improper voter assistance by Cruz and his supporters. Cruz didn’t respond to several requests for an interview. His office manager, Joe Evangelista said as far as he knows Cruz never entered polling places other than his own to vote, and he said Ramos’s supporters were stirring trouble on Election Day.

    That isn’t the what poll worker Wanda Crespo said she saw at her polling place, where Ramos was legally entitled to enter as a certified poll watcher

    “Angel Cruz came in and out as he pleased,” said Crespo. “But when Ramos tried to come in, they refused to let him come in. they were even pushing him out the door. He was telling them I have the right to come in. they were telling him we don’t care who you get, who you bring, you’re not coming in.”

    This is Philadelphia politics, so this story isn’t clean and simple. Cruz partisans say that, while Ramos is complaining about irregularities, he’s working with some of the city’s sleaziest politicians.

    Ramos has the support of Marge Tartaglione, Democratic leader of the 62nd ward and a living emblem of machine politics. Tartaglione’s son-in-law is Carlos Matos, a longtime ward leader and sworn enemy of Angel Cruz, and a man with a truly checkered history. He was recently released from prison after serving nearly three years for bribing Atlantic City Councilmen.

    Ramos said Cruz is talking about political alliances to distract attention from his Election Day conduct.

    “The Tartagliones and the Matos and that whole family,” said Ramos, “their name was not on the ballot. The name on the ballot was Jonathan Ramos. He’s responsible for his own actions, just like I’m responsible for my own actions.”

    Veteran Community activist Pedro Rodriguez wasn’t involved in this campaign, but he said Ramos allegations are sadly typical of elections in the city’s Latino community.

    “Basically, it’s like living in a third world country,” said Rodriguez, “in which there is not a tradition of democracy or respect for the sanctity of the vote. There are a lot of shenanigans that go on that are taken as the normal course of business. It’s par for the course. As a matter of fact in the 90s there was a raging gun battle outside a polling place. That same day, there was a couple of fist fights, people being beat up.”

    Rodriguez says elections aren’t like this because Latinos are passionate or corrupt, but because those responsible for policing Philadelphia elections have let it happen, year after year.

    “Elected officials – who are in charge from the state attorney general, on down to the District Attorneys of Philadelphia – they just don’t care,” says Rodriguez. “They just don’t give a hoot about what happens in North Philadelphia, about what happens when people’s right to vote get violated.”

    Rodriguez says Election Day chaos makes voters cynical and depresses turnout, feeding elected officials’ disinterest in the community. Ramos told his followers last week he hopes District Attorney Seth Williams will investigate this time and bring some order to future elections.

    “When are we going to put an end to it?” asked Ramos. “When are we going to say enough? Basta, you know – no mas? When are we going to say enough is enough? When are we going to let these poor people come out and vote, diligently, honestly and respectfully?”

    In one more classic Philadelphia twist to the story, if the current investigation bears fruit, it will likely be referred to the state attorney general for prosecution, because a close relative of Ramos is a county detective in the District Attorney’s office.

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