The head city commissioner's busiest day of the year

Phila. City Commissioner Stephanie Singer was fielding calls since 7 a.m. on Election Day.
Phila. City Commissioner Stephanie Singer was fielding calls since 7 a.m. on Election Day. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 07, 2012

At 7:15 a.m., Stephanie Singer, chair of the city commissioners, received the only call she couldn't handle – out of the, oh, million, she would answer Tuesday.

"Momento," she said, put the caller on hold, popped up from the cordovan leather chair in Room 130 of City Hall, and ran (sort of) in her navy pumps over to her assistant, Norys Gonzalez.

"Excuse me," Singer said. "I have a voter on the line who can't speak English. Could you speak to her?"

For the rest of the morning, the red buttons on the multiple phone lines flashed like an enraged arachnid monster. Singer, whose office oversees Philadelphia's elections, fielded as many as she could, as fast as she could.

"Tell me where you are. I'll send someone right out . . ." "OK, if half of the machines or more are down, here's what you do . . ."

Singer, 48, has bristled some fellow Democrats with her independent streak since she took office in January. The consensus, nonetheless, is that she is smart, hard-working and deeply committed to her mission. A mission she laid out on a hand-written banner: "Free Fair Elections. Informed Engaged Electorate. Fair Effective Respectful Workplace."

Singer is a native of Washington, whose parents met as undergrads at Swarthmore. Her mother is a renowned biochemist. Her father a lawyer who went to Mississippi in 1965 to protect people when they registered to vote. She doesn't flaunt her intellectual props, displays no Yalie paraphernalia, and tucks the diploma for her math doctorate from New York University in the back of her bookcase.

Someday, she plans to decorate the office with quotations from her heroes. Martin Luther King. Louis Brandeis. And Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who survived an assassination attempt. The quote? "We must say 'No' to wrong and we must raise our voices."

In honor of Election Day, Singer wore a red skirt, blue blazer and a pair of patriotic sunglasses she'd bought at a costume shop, with red, white and blue stripes and rhinestone stars.

"It's such a great day," she said. "We should have a parade for it!"

At 11:30, Singer set out for the 4th Street Deli, long the election day lunch spot for Philadelphia politicians.

But after a brief visit, she and Dennis Lee, her deputy commissioner, drove to the Relish Cafe in West Oak Lane. For the last few years this is where most African American and Hispanic leaders in the Democratic party have shifted their celebration.

By the time Singer arrived, the luncheon's sponsor, State Rep. Dwight Evans, Philadelphia NAACP President Jerry Mondesire, and various religious and labor leaders had already made their speeches.

Singer picked lightly from the lavish buffet of buttermilk fried chicken, salads, grits and shrimp, strawberries and warm pineapple upside-down cake. But she spent most of her time greeting and hugging and commiserating about the great unknown.

"The one thing we can't measure," she said repeatedly, "is how many voters stayed home because they were intimidated by the voter ID confusion."

On her way out, the crowd was so thick that she passed Mayor Nutter, who was on his way in. Later, he would call her about the biggest problem of the day: rumors that vast numbers of polling places ran out of provisional ballots.

Singer spent the rest of the day in her second office, in the commission's command center on Spring Garden Street, trying to fight that furor with facts.

Rumors can be destructive, she said. "You need to deal with them because you want people to have confidence that the system is free and fair. Especially in an election like this, where the stakes are so high and people are really nervous."

Anxiety was so intense, she said, that three judges of elections broke down in tears. One called, frantic, because the voting machines in her precinct were not warming up fast enough when she turned them on. Singer said she sympathized. "People think, 'My candidate is going to lose and my country is going to go down the tubes because I can't set up this machine.' "

She felt less empathy when Abbe Fletman, a lawyer for the Obama campaign, called about the provisional ballot issue. Fletman spoke so loudly that Singer held the phone away from her ear while she took notes, "100 more to each division," and began drawing black lines around the words.

"If you're talking to me as a trial lawyer, then I'm going to have to get my lawyer," she told Fletman. Later, she called Fred Voigt, the commissioners' legal counsel, telling him that he would likely hear from Fletman.

As the sun began to set over the Delaware River, Singer leaned back and said, "This is when I begin to fade." She would recharge for a few hours before the returns came in, she said, and the real excitement started.

"I love it!" she said. "I love this job!"

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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