Marge Tartaglione decides to go quietly

MargaretTartaglione
MargaretTartaglione
Posted: December 23, 2011

Margaret Tartaglione, an icon of Philadelphia politics for the last generation, is giving up her job as the city's top election official, and like another icon, Frank Sinatra, Marge is doing it her way.

That means no farewell ceremonies, no retirement lunches, no interviews with reporters with whom she has sparred verbally for years - nothing that might tempt Tartaglione to utter a single word she doesn't mean.

"She doesn't want anything," aides tell people who stick their heads into Tartaglione's office on the first floor of City Hall, wondering how to say goodbye.

It's an unusual farewell for a public official whose trademark since the 1970s has been her feisty outspokenness.

Tartaglione essentially stopped talking to reporters early this year, facing a tough reelection campaign that she eventually lost. "Put down anything you want, I don't care," Tartaglione said at a commissioners' meeting in February, apparently addressing a couple of reporters in the small audience. "I service people. I do my job."

The logistics of the job are enormous - arranging for about 1,600 polling locations in all sections of the city, distributing voting machines to them twice each year, maintaining more than a million records on registered voters and getting them to the right polling places, recruiting poll workers for token wages, collecting petitions from would-be candidates, and counting all the votes when it's over, among many other tasks.

By all accounts, Tartaglione assembled and maintained a strong cast of civil service employees who pulled off the elections without significant problems, year after year for nearly four decades.

"I think those who denigrate the system don't really know how very difficult it is to run," said City Councilman Jim Kenney. "Those guys know their stuff, they move Election Day like generals move the military."

Tartaglione won her first citywide election in 1975, joining Mayor Frank L. Rizzo's reelection slate in the middle of Rizzo's bid to take control of the Democratic Party.

Ever since, she has distinguished herself as one of a kind - fiercely loyal to her family, friends, and allies, equally combative with those she regarded as foes.

One or the other, virtually everyone following city politics over the last 35 years has a story about Marge.

There was the AFL-CIO Christmas party when Tartaglione took offense at a late-in-the-evening comment from Norman Loudenslager, the late Democratic Party treasurer and head of the machinists union. Suddenly she stood up and socked Loudenslager in the jaw - hard enough that he chomped through his cigar, breaking it in two.

There was the dispute with another city commissioner, Eugene E. J. Maier, over an issue tied to the Rizzo recall effort in 1976. Maier said the commissioners had to provide three days' notice of a public meeting, "so people can come in here and see what kind of travesty you're perpetrating."

"Are you finished?" asked Tartaglione. "Then wipe yourself."

Some of the best stories were ones that Tartaglione told herself, like the time she was on a cruise with her husband, Eugene, who died in 2008, and he decided to see what would happen if he added bubble bath to the hot tub. When the soap hit the plastic surface of the tub, it became too slippery to climb out.

Just short of her 78th birthday, Tartaglione was still as combative as ever.

Her daughter Renee was forced to give up her job as her mother's chief of staff last year when the city Board of Ethics documented violations of the City Charter's ban on political activity.

When a reporter pressed her for comment at the next commissioners' meeting, Marge Tartaglione warned him to back off: "You say that [we are] corrupt and I'll jump over this table and punch you out."

Wednesday nights, Tartaglione presided over meetings of the 62d Ward Democratic organization, held in the basement of her home in Northeast Philadelphia, where she offered her committee people pizza, hoagies, beer on tap - and, not infrequently, entertainment.

Sometimes she required visiting candidates to entertain her committee people with a song. When Jeffrey B. Minehart was running for Common Pleas Court judge in 2004, he mentioned to Tartaglione that he played the guitar. She ordered him to bring it to her next ward meeting. With Joseph A. Dych, also a candidate for judge, they sang an Irish ballad.

For the first time ever, Tartaglione lost an election in May's Democratic primary, defeated as she sought to extend her 36-year run.

Tartaglione had strenuous opposition from another woman and Democratic ward leader, Stephanie Singer, who made Tartaglione the target of her campaign.

But it took a confluence of other factors to unseat her: a conflict with the powerful electricians union leader, John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, because Tartaglione refused to support the union's political director, Bobby Henon, in his race for City Council; a conflict with another ward leader, Michael Stack, because Marge's daughter Tina, a state senator, had sided with someone else in a Senate leadership fight; and Tartaglione's participation in the DROP program, which paid her $288,000 for a one-day "retirement" after she won reelection in 2007. (She will also receive a monthly pension of $6,429.)

On top of that, Tartaglione had open-heart surgery in February for a partial blockage. She was back at City Hall, presiding over a meeting of the city commissioners, a week after leaving the hospital.

Her heart problems dated back to the 1980s. "At least, now people know I have a heart," she told reporters then.

"She's direct, she does not mince words, and she can punch like a man," said Kenney. "The likes of her shall not pass here any time soon."


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

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|