Marge Madness: Tartaglione defies criticism

Marge Tartaglione
Marge Tartaglione
Posted: March 21, 2011

CITY COMMISSIONER Margaret Tartaglione is 78 years old; she's recovering from a recent heart bypass; she took a $288,000 payment from the hated DROP program; her daughter, who is her closest aide, was just forced to resign for illegal politicking; now she's running for re-election. You got a problem with that?

Beneath her blonde bouffant hairdo, oversized glasses and heavy jewelry beats the reconfigured heart of a fighter.

Known simply as "Marge" to a generation of Philadelphia politicians, Tartaglione is a still-fiery great-grandmother and Democratic ward leader from Oxford Circle who's been in charge of the city election machinery for more than 30 years.

She's as Philadelphia as the 700-level of the old Vet Stadium - not only tough-talking, but undefeated in more actual fistfights (four) than any other city pol will admit to.

Indeed, in 1979 Tartaglione was honored by the Pennsylvania State Boxing Hall of Fame "because she won't backstep for anyone."

Including Father Time.

Within days of her 78th birthday at the end of February, she was on the operating table at Hahnemann University Hospital, getting open-heart surgery for a partial blockage. A week later, she filed petitions seeking her 10th four-year term.

Marge won't go down without a fight. With continued support from the city's Democratic organization, she's unlikely to go down, period.

But she's on the unpopular side of issues and controversies that could derail her plans.

Tartaglione's one-day "retirement" in 2008, permitting her to collect $288,000 under the city's deferred-retirement program, has drawn criticism - and prompted a lawsuit to try and force her off the ballot.

Tartaglione's own daughter, Renee, was forced to resign from her staff in November after the city's Board of Ethics documented blatant violations of the City Charter's ban on politicking by employees.

Renee was running the Democratic organization in Kensington's 19th ward while her husband, ward leader Carlos Matos, was in federal prison for bribery. Among other offenses, Renee printed sample ballots intended to mislead voters about a Matos rival.

So far, Marge Tartaglione has refused to discuss what she knew about Renee's activities.

Two government watchdog organizations - the Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a state-appointed panel overseeing city finances - have both called for abolishing the city commissioners, saying it's expensive and unnecessary to have elected officials running city elections.

Tartaglione says that the groups just don't understand her office.

One of the state's top election lawyers, Gregory J. Harvey, said that Tartaglione and her staff deserve credit for a "very satisfactory" record handling the mechanics of city elections. The city has computerized its voter-registration system and switched to new digital voting machines, he noted, without the massive problems that have plagued other cities.

But two computer-savvy outsiders have embarrassed the commissioners' office for its slow recognition of the Internet.

A law-school student, Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, sued the city for failing to put election-night returns on the Internet and discovered that the commissioners were giving out free passwords that allowed political insiders to get election results that weren't available to the general public.

Stephanie Singer, a Democratic committeewoman in Center City, needed Harvey's help to obtain detailed election results from the commissioners' office in 2008. Within an hour of getting the data, she had the information up on her own web site, www.phillydems.org.

Singer is now Democratic leader of Center City's 8th ward, herself a declared candidate for Tartaglione's job. And it's still impossible to get election results beyond the 2010 General Election on the commissioners' website.

"Marge runs the office the way it was run in 1976," says Joseph DeFelice, a state Republican Party organizer who's been attending the commissioners' weekly meetings for several years. "People are getting information from the Internet and I don't know if she can use a computer."

Does she use a computer or not? The Daily News can't say. Tartaglione has been unavailable for interviews.

"Put down anything you want, I don't care," Tartaglione said at a commissioner's meeting last month, apparently addressing a couple of reporters in the audience. "I service people. I do my job."

A rising Rizzocrat

Tartaglione was first elected commissioner in 1975, swept into office on then-Mayor Frank Rizzo's slate, as he waged a political war with then city Democratic Party chairman Pete Camiel.

Tartaglione, then 42, was a Democratic committeewoman with five children and a patronage job as a state sales-tax investigator. Her husband Eugene (who died in 2008) ran a Sunoco station.

Rizzo's second term was marked by two big political battles - a recall effort that was ultimately snuffed out by the state Supreme Court, and an unsuccessful bid by Rizzo supporters to change the City Charter so that he could seek a third term.

Tartaglione took Rizzo's side on virtually every issue that the commissioners faced, quickly earning a reputation as combative and loyal to a fault.

After Rizzo left office, Tartaglione kept a relatively low profile until 1994, when a federal judge threw out the results of a state Senate race in the lower Northeast. The judge ruled that Tartaglione and others had condoned widespread abuse of absentee-ballot procedures.

A subsequent grand-jury investigation laid most of the blame on campaign workers, not Tartaglione. That November, another Tartaglione daughter, Christine, was elected to the state Senate seat, which she still holds.

Similar questions about absentee ballots have continued to swirl in close elections. Republican David Oh, who lost a 2007 Council race to Jack Kelly by 122 votes, said it was clear that absentee ballots had been distributed in bulk, rather than mailed on request to individual voters - contrary to procedures spelled out in a federal consent decree.

"When they want to hurt a candidate, they hurt a candidate," said the 33rd ward Democratic leader, Donna Aument, who has feuded with Marge Tartaglione for years.

She said that Tartaglione had allowed one of her employees to register in the 33rd ward, at an address where he didn't live, in order to run against Aument for ward leader - in spite of the charter's ban on political activity by city-commission employees.

"Marge and Carlos and Renee, they run that office like it's their personal kingdom," Aument said.

As the Democratic ward leader in Oxford Circle's 62nd ward, Marge turns out big majorities for Democratic candidates and has forged strong alliances with most other ward leaders.

One card that helps: the city commission payroll with hundreds of part-time, non-permanent positions, allowing Tartaglione to provide short-term jobs to dozens of people in her own ward and those of her allies.

State Rep. Tony Payton, who lives in Tartaglione's ward, ran for the legislature in 2006 without seeking her support, and has paid a price ever since, he says.

Marge backed Payton's opponent, Emilio Vazquez. When Vazquez was knocked off the ballot for failing to disclose that he worked for the Parking Authority, the Tartagliones organized a write-in campaign and at many polling places election judges helped distribute stamps and ink pads, Payton said.

"Like her daughter having to resign, this speaks to a political culture," Payton said. "Maybe not corruption, but skirting the rules when it's in your interest."

Tartaglione herself dismisses such criticism, contending that it's inspired by politics or ignorance of how her office runs.

"You can call me anything you want - brash, loudmouth - but we run things honest," Tartaglione told a reporter last month.

Tartaglione has slowed down with age. She moves and talks more deliberately than she used to, relying on longtime staff members to describe election preparations and handle any detailed issues that come up at the commissioners' weekly meetings.

But she still shows flashes of her legendary temper.

After Renee was forced to resign, Marge tried to minimize the issue at the next commissioners' meeting. "It's done," Tartaglione told reporters.

When a reporter from Philadelphia Weekly, Aaron Kase, tried to follow up, Marge interrupted: "You say that [we are] corrupt and I'll jump over this table and punch you out!"

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