After election disarray, Philadelphia City Commissioners try to regroup

Al Schmidt is expected to be de facto leader.
Al Schmidt is expected to be de facto leader.
Posted: November 27, 2012

The rarest of Philadelphia coalitions, a progressive, bipartisan pair who promised to take politics out of the city election machinery and bring transparency and efficiency to the City Commissioners' Office, is having a bad breakup.

Its standard-bearer was Stephanie Singer, 48, a mathematician who defeated the city's longtime elections boss, Marge Tartaglione, in the 2011 Democratic primary. Singer moved into Tartaglione's City Hall office in January as chair of the City Commissioners, the agency that runs Philadelphia elections.

Her ally was another upstart, Republican Al Schmidt, 41, a former auditor with the U.S. Government Accountability Office who also defeated his party's establishment.

The two moved quickly to improve the commissioners' website, provide public access to city election data, set up staff ethics training, and adopt rules against sexual harassment and nepotism.

But after months of petty-sounding disputes and a troublesome general election, Singer was deposed this month by Schmidt and the third commissioner, Anthony Clark.

Schmidt and Clark named themselves cochairmen of the agency.

Clark, 53, a Democratic ward leader who was Tartaglione's compliant sidekick for four years, accepted an $8,800 raise as cochair, to $132,400 a year, and took over Singer's more spacious offices, though he tends to spend little time in City Hall.

Schmidt, with a strong staff and businesslike work ethic, is widely expected to be the agency's de facto leader. (He did not take a pay hike.)

The day-to-day operations of the Board of Elections, which the commissioners oversee - jobs like handling voter registration, tending to voting machines, distributing absentee ballots, and counting the popular vote - remain the province of a respected Civil Service staff assembled by Tartaglione over her 36 years in office.

But it was tested severely this year by an avalanche of voter registrations, a flood of absentee-ballot requests, a ballot challenge against the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate that tied up a dozen employees, and an actual deluge from Hurricane Sandy.

On Election Day, thousands of longtime registered voters showed up at the polls to discover their names were not included in poll books, forcing them to vote by provisional ballot. For that and other reasons, the 27,146 provisional ballots cast was more than double the 2008 number.

The poll books are published by an outside printing company using data provided by the state, so it's unclear whether city election workers bore any responsibility for the problems.

But it set off alarms throughout the Democratic Party, including some panic that polling places would run out of paper ballots. Now, the commissioners face three probes: from City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who wants to audit the Election Day process; from Mayor Nutter, who derided the commissioners as "a three-ring circus"; and from the commissioners themselves, who promise a detailed review of general election performance.

Before the election, the state voter-ID law was the most obvious point of disagreement between Singer and Schmidt.

Singer was one of the law's most outspoken critics, warning that it would disenfranchise thousands of voters, predominantly elderly and young voters without drivers' licenses.

She often challenged and sometimes embarrassed officials in Republican Gov. Corbett's administration over the accuracy of state data and instructions to voters and counties.

Schmidt avoided taking a position for or against the ID law, saying it was the commissioners' job to enforce whatever voting rules the legislature and courts established.

In midsummer, he issued a report on relatively minor "voting irregularities." The report was immediately seized upon by state Republicans as proof of significant vote-fraud problems. Schmidt, whose 2011 campaign was heavily financed by state GOP leadership, did not challenge the hyperbole.

But it apparently was Singer's awkward management style, not her opposition to voter ID, that undermined her relationship with Clark and Schmidt, along with important constituencies - Democratic ward leaders, the commissioners' Civil Service workers, and even her own staff. The top three aides she started with are no longer in the office.

Singer antagonized Clark from the get-go, rejecting his choice for chief of staff. In a minor dispute over setting weekly meeting agendas, she escalated the stakes by asking Clark publicly how she could consult with him when he showed up in City Hall so rarely.

(In an interview last week, Clark acknowledged he spends little time at his office, but said he often visits Board of Elections offices at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street, was available by phone around the clock, and spends a lot of time at ribbon-cuttings and other public events.)

Ward leaders and committee people are crucial to the city's election operations, with years of experience in the intricacies of nominating candidates, registering voters, and running Election Day operations. In most parts of the city, they recruit city poll workers and spend the day troubleshooting.

Singer was a Democratic ward leader in Center City for three years. She gave up the post when she was elected to office, citing potential conflicts.

As commissioner, she angered some ward leaders by declaring she would require resum├ęs from people wanting temporary jobs from the City Commissioners, and antagonized others by suggesting tighter rules on who could serve on election boards.

"She was first and foremost concerned about 'reforming,' without any consideration about the impact that would have on the election," said Carol Jenkins, the Democratic ward leader in University City. "When she talked to me, she didn't seem to be willing to listen to what I had to say about it."

Schmidt treads lightly around his differences with Singer.

"The best thing for the agency is to remain as focused as possible on its future operations," he said. "Regurgitating everything that we went through this past year would likely not be constructive."

Schmidt said he planned to propose internal changes to improve performance: "I think we can all agree that the department can perform better, and I think we saw that on Election Day."

The voter-ID law could present more challenges in the primary, when it is due to take effect. Singer and Schmidt have had only three or four substantive conversations since Schmidt issued his voting-irregularities report, said Singer, who sees dark implications in the commissioners' new leadership.

"This is about the state Republican Party taking control of the commissioners' office and doing whatever it took . . . to get Commissioner Clark to help with that," Singer said in an interview. "I think Al Schmidt is controlling this office, and I don't know for sure who he answers to."

Such division has led at least one observer to a all-too-familiar conclusion.

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, vice president of the elections watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said Seventy was planning to dust off a 2009 report calling for the abolition of the three commissioners as elected city officials.

"You can't have three people running an office. It just doesn't work well," Kaplan said. "Somebody's got to be the decision-maker. . . . Marge Tartaglione, whether you liked her or not, the way she wanted it was the way it was done. There wasn't any confusion about it."


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

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