We hear a lot about what democracy means in America. In the case of the Cheri Honkala Green Party campaign for Sheriff of Philadelphia, what democracy means is recognizing that the selective enforcement of laws is a reality in our history and, then, offering voters the real choice of a sheriff who will not enforce foreclosure orders in a depressed economy.
Honkala is a well-known poor people's activist in Philadelphia who, over the years, has organized large street demonstrations and even gotten herself arrested many times occupying homes and doing other actions to call attention to the plight of the poor. She was raised dirt poor in Minnesota and she has worked lots of unpleasant and dreary jobs to survive. Her first-born son, Mark Webber -- born when she was age 16 and living in a car -- is a successful Hollywood actor.
Some say Honkala is not serious and is out to destroy good government. One writer in Philadelphia referred to her in his headline as an "outlaw" and in his lead as "Philly's most famous embodiment of grass-roots guerilla protestdom."
I prefer to use one of the most famous sheriff references in world literature. I see Cheri Honkala as Robin Hood. Instead of running around in green tights and using bows and arrows to engage the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, she's using the ballot box to take the Sheriff of Nottingham's job.
The central plank of Honkala's campaign is a determination to stop the evictions of poor and middle-class homeowners whose mortgages have been foreclosed on by banks and lenders. There's no mystery or sleight of hand; anyone who votes for Honkala knows what he or she is voting for: A revamped Sheriff's Office with a new mission to counter the pirate-style economics of the moment.
Making the race even more interesting, one of her potential opponents – John Kromer – is running in the Democratic primary to eliminate the office. On his first day in office, he says he will begin the process of transferring all the Sheriff's Office tasks to the mayor's office and other city agencies. Those tasks include evictions and sheriff sales of foreclosed homes, as well as transport of inmates to and from court appearances and courthouse security.
When Kromer was the city's housing director under Mayor Ed Rendell, he actually had Honkala arrested a couple times for holding vigils outside his office. Mayor Rendell referred to Honkala as "a pebble in my shoe," a references that makes Honkala smile.
The other candidates in the Democratic and Republican primaries are campaigning to keep the office doing exactly what it has been doing. Efficiency and an end to corruption are major planks in everyone's campaign rhetoric – including Honkala's -- given that the previous Sheriff, John Green, left office under a dark cloud that involved the mysterious disappearance of $53 million. The audits are still going on.
For the more establishment candidates, the city's collection of revenue is a key motivating issue. Issues like encouraging development and gentrification may mean more taxes but they may also damage communities in the process. So, it's an election with real choices. The primary is on May 17th and the main election Honkala will be running in is November 8th.
Democracy in action
One of the mantras about America is, if you see something wrong, you have the right to run for office. It's America 101. What motivates the Honkala campaign is the on-going, top-down economic crisis America is going through and the "trickle-down" effect that dumps much of the pain and cost of recovery on poor, low- and middle-income people – especially in the area of mortgages and foreclosures.
We know the story: Wall Street bankers and financial-class speculators engaged in an unregulated orgy of the slicing-and-dicing of mortgages into ever-more-baroque financial instruments that often even they did not fully understand. The fuel was personal greed.
As a recent 60 Minutes report showed, these sliced-and-diced mortgage-based financial instruments were put together so fast and sloppily much of the original mortgage documentation was lost. Once the house of cards collapsed, the banks and mortgage companies panicked and fraudulently created bogus documents to trace the funds. The millions of these phony documents are so crude they're laughable. The same sordid story was told in the fine documentary 'Inside Job'.
What 'Inside Job' and the 60 Minutes report did not emphasize is that these fraudulently created documents represented individual families, many of them facing foreclosures.
The final insult in this shameful mess was, while the US government was itself panicking and voting to spend many hundreds of billions of tax dollars to bail out and save the "too big to fail" financial institutions who had created the problem in the first place, they completely reneged on provisions voted in the bail-out legislation to help out poor and middle-class homeowners.
There is no way around it: The US used tax funds to bail out the big fish and, despite voting funds for the task, chose to let the little fish fend for themselves. Neil Barofsky, special inspector for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), spells it out in detail in a New York Times op-ed.
This leads us to the second and more important all-American reality of Cheri Honkala's campaign for Sheriff of Philadelphia. She says, if elected, she will not enforce eviction orders of poor and middle-class home owners foreclosed on in Philadelphia. She wants to stand up for those little fish who were promised help but never got it.
Acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley, who is not running, has said, "We have to follow court orders, and that's what sheriff's sales are." But what Deeley doesn't understand is Honkala is not running for the same Sheriff's job Deeley is currently holding. While Kromer wants to eliminate the office, Honkala wants to transform it into an ombudsman for the poor in the city of Philadelphia.
In this sense, Honkala's campaign revolves around one of the most un-reported realities of American governance, something as American as apple pie, something seen throughout American history and something that always will be with us: The willful selective enforcement of our laws.
It ranges from George W. Bush's notorious "signing statements" concerning laws passed by Congress to the 55 mile per hour speed limit. Historically, you saw it in things like "vagrancy" laws used to selectively snare certain poor people for chain gang labor; you saw it in literacy tests in the south where a black man would be asked to read a line of Greek but a white man would get a "Hello, right this way" to the ballot box. In general, it's the ugly, prejudicial backside of police and judicial discretion.
It's often such a taken-for-granted part of American governance that no one really notices it. The wealthy, the powerful, the popular and the white tend to get the breaks, which come in the form of mitigating circumstances, good character reports and assurances the individual is sorry and didn't really mean it. On the other hand, the poor, the powerless, the unattractive, the mentally ill and the darker races tend – and statistics back this up – to get the opposite: the assumption of laziness or evil intent, projections of fear and just flat-out prejudice.
In Honkala's case, she is being up-front about her intentions to selectively enforce the law. Of course, the novelty is she wants to selectively enforce the law in favor of poor people and not selective enforcement's usual benefactors, the affluent, the powerful and the white.
Selective Enforcement Creates A "Criminogenic Environment"
Just so no one thinks selective enforcement is something of the past, The New York Times recently published a large, well-researched article called "In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures." It details at least nine instances of the selective avoidance of prosecution or accountability at the very top of the nation's financial and banking industry.
The lack of prosecutions is "consistent with what many people were worried about during the crisis, that different rules would be applied to different players. It goes to the whole perception that Wall Street was taken care of, and Main Street was not," says David A. Skeel, a law professor from the University of Pennsylvania.
In instance after instance, the Justice Department and the FBI cut back staff to investigate fraudulent activity at the top -- as entities like The Security and Exchange Commission encouraged going easy on the banks. William K. Black, a professor of law at the University of Missouri and a federal prosecutor in the 1980s savings and loan scandal put it this way about federal oversight in the current scandal:
“(T)heir policies have created an exceptional criminogenic environment. There were no criminal referrals from the regulators. No fraud working groups. No national task force. There has been no effective punishment of the elites here."
Henry N. Pontell, a criminology professor at the University of California, says it's a matter of regulators not understanding – or, like the fox guarding the chicken coop, willfully not seeing – what's going on in the area they are supposed to be regulating.
"If they don't understand what we call collective embezzlement, where people are literally looting their own firms, then it's impossible to bring cases."
My favorite sleaze operation is the notorious Countrywide Bank, which chose to be overseen by something called the Office of Thrift Supervision run by John Reich, a former banker and Senate staffer appointed to the job by George W. Bush. Robert Gnaizda of Greenlining Institute, a consumer organization in Oakland, says he repeatedly informed Reich about Countrywide's shady practices.
"We saw that people were getting bad loans," he told The Times. "We focused on Countrywide because they were the largest originator in California and they were the ones with the most exotic mortgages."
He says he advised Reich to increase OTS's oversight of Countrywide and to set up a hot line for whistle-blowers. Gnaizda told Reich, "This is what any police chief does if he wants to solve a crime." Reich did nothing. Gnaizda said, "He told me he was a good friend of Mozilo's."
That would be Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, who, after a modest settlement with the SEC for insider trading, slipped out of the debacle with a reported $400 million earned during the period.
Protecting Poor People Over Pirates
All these "too big to fail" pirates made out just fine thanks to the bailout and the selective absence of law enforcement. They are still rolling in ill-gained dough and buying second and third vacation homes. Meanwhile, the poor and working people of places like Philadelphia are paying the price with unemployment and foreclosures. It's a lousy deal, and it did not have to be this way.
One picks one's battles in life, and Honkala is picking the race for Sheriff as her battle for 2011. Whether her campaign amounts to more than a "pebble in the shoe" of the financial industry depends ultimately on the voters of Philadelphia. In the meantime it depends on fundraising and media coverage, the two necessities of electoral politics in America.
The fact is, unlike a lot of races, this year's Philadelphia Sheriff's race is rich with ideas and real choices. Expected charges of "class warfare" hinge on a willful refusal to see what an incredible free-ride plutocracy is currently getting in America.
In that sense, Cheri Honkala's Robin-Hood-For-Sheriff campaign is a local defensive action.