You won’t find City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s name on the Tuesday primary ballot, but a careful reading suggests she’s trying to expand her political reach.
Philadelphia politicians from Vince Fumo to Bob Brady to Bill Gray have gone beyond just winning office to recruiting new candidates and getting them elected.
They have used those alliances to amass power and influence that reach far beyond City Hall.
In that tradition, a new potential powerbroker is poised to represent the city and its growing Latino population.
You won’t find City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s name on the Tuesday primary ballot, but a careful reading suggests she’s trying to expand her political reach. The politician from North Philadelphia endorsed a slate of four legislative candidates who are running on May 20th.
“Whether it’s literature, the mail campaign, the radio campaign, everything that we’ve done, we’ve been able to do jointly and that has saved us a whole lot of money,” she said.
The slate includes her husband, Tomas Sánchez, who was politically active before their marriage. He is seeking the 2nd District state Senate seat now held by state Sen. Tina Tartaglione, who said she is undaunted by the challenge.
The incumbent Tartaglione said given the state of politics and the power held by Republicans in Harrisburg, she believes it’s important for an established politician to hold the seat and fight for Philadelphia.
“They have to measure up to me. I’m the one with the record and it’s a record that I’m truly, truly proud of.”
Also on the slate are former staffers from the councilwoman’s office who are now campaigning for state house seats: Quetcy Lozada is challenging state Rep. Angel Cruz in the 180th District; Danilo Burgos is taking on state Rep. J.P. Miranda in the 197th District; and Jason Dawkins is running against state Rep. James Clay Jr. in the 179th.
Quiñones-Sánchez calls the aspiring politicians “a talented group who have come together and share common values and a belief in public service.”
Running as outsiders
There’s nothing unusual about an elected official supporting other candidates. But this slate stands out because none of the candidates have the endorsement from the city’s Democratic Party, the state House and Senate challengers are running as outsiders — just as Quiñones-Sánchez has in the past.
“If she can sweep all of them, then I would say she’s a person that people are going to take notice of,” said Larry Ceisler, a public relations consultant and the publisher of PoliticsPA.
When an elected official decides to back a slate of challengers, Ceisler said, it offers a chance to prove the politician can deliver votes and get other people elected.
“Which makes you stronger. It can also be used to expand an elected official’s sphere of influence. You know for years you had people like Vince Fumo,” the former state senator notorious for wielding enormous influence in Harrisburg and in Philly.
Fumo’s influence ended with his conviction on corruption charges, and his former rival, Electricians Union leader John Dougherty, has become an increasingly powerful force since.
Decades ago, there was local kingmaker Bill Gray who started as pastor of Bright Hope Baptist church in the 1970’s and went on to win a seat in Congress. Gray rose to power in Washington while also mentoring and guiding a generation of Philadelphia leaders, including Mayor Michael Nutter, state Rep. Dwight Evans and City Councilwoman Marian Tasco.
Ceisler said he will be watching to see how the Quiñones-Sánchez slate does — and how she is received.
“My guess is what the councilwoman is trying to do is to show that she is a political power — somebody who people need to come to when they want to get things done either in the city or in the state,” Ceisler said.
Foreseeing a lot of firsts
Quinones-Sanchez is poised to become the most influential Latino political figure in the city’s history at an ideal time — that population grew more than 50 percent since 2000. As councilwoman, she said, she represents all of her constituents, but she did acknowledge that election of the slate she’s backing would be historic.
“We would be creating the first Latina elected to the state House, we would be creating the first Dominican elected to office in Philadelphia, and the first Latino to the state Senate,” she said. “So there’s a lot of firsts.”
Should her slate win, Quiñones-Sánchez would have allies representing a substantial chunk of the city.
There’s a history behind Quinones-Sanchez’s willingness to challenge the city Democratic machine. After she won a contested election to City Council in 2007, she expected to have party leaders support for re-election, since they routinely back incumbents.
But Quinones-Sanchez was snubbed-
“I literally had people calling me up saying, ‘I want to support you because what they’re doing to you is wrong,'” she said.
Still, she won – beating Danny Savage, the same candidate the party backed the first time when she defeated him to win the seat originally.
Now, going into the primary election, none of the candidates on her slate is endorsed by the city’s Democratic party. The three state House challengers are her former staffers, the state Senate candidate is her husband, who was politically-active before their marriage.
Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Audition for higher office?
Politics PA publisher Larry Ceisler speculated this could be as much about building her profile as getting her candidates elected.
“For a person like Quiñones-Sánchez, if she has higher aspirations, mayor for instance, to be able to show others that you have the ability to organize, get people to the polls, and win elections is something that people would take notice of,” he said.
Ceisler isn’t the only one wondering if the councilwoman has her eyes on higher office.
And a dearth of prominent female politicians has many political watchers eager for a candidate with her background and experience.
Quiñones-Sánchez grew up in the city’s Hunting Park section, served as the first female and youngest executive director of ASPIRA, the largest Latino educational institution in Pennsylvania, and is the first Latina to serve on Philadelphia City Council.
As far as a run for mayor, Quiñones-Sánchez said she feels “just as qualified as every candidate that is running, and I feel very proud of that.
“I hope in the next four to eight years I will be able to demonstrate to the rest of the city that someone like me can lead this city for everyone,” she said.
More work to do
That includes neighborhoods haunted by crime and poverty, including the blocks near Front and Indiana.
On a recent visit, most of the houses looked occupied but there’s no shortage of sidewalk trash. In the distance a rooster made his presence known.
Longtime resident Carmen Morales slowly pulled a shopping cart down the street with her granddaughter.
“Bullets don’t have no names. And innocents pay. You know what I mean? The kids get out of school, they be shooting, selling drugs,” Morales said.
Talking with her was Quetcy Lozada, one of the state House candidates Quiñones-Sánchez is backing.
“This has never been done in the history of Philadelphia politics — where specifically a group of Latinos get together to try to do something for specific districts that are so close to one another,” Lozada said.
It’s time for the city to have more elected Latino leaders, said Lozada, remembering her words to the newly elected Quiñones-Sánchez.
“I said to her when she first came into office, I said to her, ‘Oh my goodness, you need to be the first woman mayor,’ ” Lozada recalled.
Sitting in her City Hall office, Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez said that, for now, she prefers to focus on the slate she’s endorsed and on working hard for her district.
“2015 is not my year,” she said. “And the reason that it’s not my year and the reason for this slate is there’s a lot of work that I need to do in my district if I want to tell the rest of the city that I’m ready to lead it.”