Phila. commissioners may gain in erudition

Posted: May 19, 2011

For a quick idea of the primary election's impact on Philadelphia politics, consider this: When the next set of city commissioners gets together for its first meeting next January, there's a good chance that two out of the three might hold Ph.D.'s.

The first and most likely is Stephanie Singer, a mathematician who came to the Philadelphia area to teach at Haverford College and got seriously involved in politics working for Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign.

On Tuesday, after an aggressive campaign promising reforms and targeting one of the strongest figures in city politics, Singer defeated Marge Tartaglione, the combative Northeast Philadelphia ward leader who has presided over the city election machinery since the mid-1970s.

With Democrats holding a 6-1 registration edge over Republicans, Singer and her running mate, one-term incumbent Anthony Clark, are almost certain to win two of the three city commissioner seats.

The second Ph.D. who may join them is Al Schmidt, a doctor of modern European history, who got involved in Republican politics several years ago after his wife got a job with a Philadelphia law firm.

With the old guard of the city's Republican Party lined up against him, Schmidt raised money from outside the city, cobbled a campaign organization from dissidents inside the GOP, and foiled the party's attempt to snuff him out.

Schmidt will appear on the November ballot with Joseph J. Duda, a Republican stalwart looking for his fifth term as commissioner. The job will likely go to whichever candidate gets the most support from Democratic voters.

Both Singer and Schmidt touted their intentions to run city elections more fairly and efficiently.

Singer said Wednesday that the final straw convincing her to run was the disclosure last December that Tartaglione's daughter Renee had been forced to resign when the city Board of Ethics caught her violating the Home Rule Charter's ban on political activity, misleading voters with phony election material among other offenses.

Marge Tartaglione created major problems for herself by signing up for the city's deferred-retired program, known as DROP, "retiring" for a day in 2008 to collect a $288,000 payment from the city pension fund.

But Singer and Schmidt both took advantage of political divisions within their parties to succeed.

Singer piled up big margins in various wards after the Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers put her and Clark on its sample ballots.

The primary reason? Tartaglione had refused to back Local 98's political director, Bobby Henon, who was running against Marty Bednarek for the Council seat being vacated by Joan Krajewski.

"I went to Marge for her support last summer, before we knew who all the candidates would be, and she said she was with me," Bednarek said Wednesday. " 'My word is my bond,' " she said, " 'I'm not going to leave you.' . . . The pressure she faced, I wouldn't have blamed her if she had to back away from me. But Marge is old school, like I am. She was going to do it her way."

In South Philadelphia's First Ward, led by Local 98's business manager, John Dougherty, Singer got 793 votes, outpolling Tartaglione better than 2-1. In the 56th Ward in Rhawnhurst, where the ward leader is a Dougherty ally, John Sabatina, Singer got 1,214, nearly three times as many as Tartaglione.

In the 58th Ward, led by State Sen. Michael Stack, Singer drew 958 votes, twice as many as Tartaglione.

Stack had political issues of his own with State Sen. Tina Tartaglione, Marge's daughter. Late last year, he was running for Senate Democratic leader but Tina Tartaglione supported another candidate, Jay Costa of Allegheny County.

"A lot of people were disappointed that we were not able to capture the leader's position for Philadelphia," Stack acknowledged Wednesday. "That's an issue that relates to people's feelings and emotions."

But he said the real reason he supported Singer and opposed Tartaglione was a concern over the ethics and image of the commissioners' office.

"I'm a politician," Stack said. "I play in that field. But at the end of the day, it's important that the process of running elections is perceived as completely ethical and a completely fair process. . . . It has to be an office that's above reproach, professionally run. I think Stephanie Singer, with her credentials and approach, is going to bring a breath of fresh air, and I think that office needs it."


Contact staff writer Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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