Why the City Commissioners’ Race Matters to Progressives

Much of our collective energy has been focused on City Council races. But over the long haul, change in the City Commissioners’ race might mean far more, and with Stephanie Singer we have the opportunity to elect someone who will ensure that our elections are conducted competently, fairly and impartially.

Building a progressive movement depends on a fair, transparent process. When corrupt politicians control the election machinery, there is no level political playing field. Last December, the Inquirer reported that

Renee Tartaglione, the top election official under Philadelphia's three elected city commissioners - who include her mother[Marge Tartaglione] - ordered 2,000 ballots that deliberately misled voters, collected election day "street money" from the city's Democratic Party, and served as a substitute ward leader for her jailed husband.

Deputy Commissioner Renee Tartaglione's apparently deliberate attempt to mislead voters should have provoked more outrage and received a much more severe penalty than a $2,700 fine. From Dave Davies’ Newsworks report:

One of the specific acts Renee admitted to amounts to a dirty trick. In 2008, when she and her family were backing a candidate against State Rep. Angel Cruz, she got 2,000 sample ballots printed for distribution on election day with Cruz’s name – not her candidate’s – and the wrong lever number for his re-election.
If the sample ballots were distributed (it’s not clear whether they were), they would clearly mislead Cruz’s voters and cost him votes. Cruz plans a news conference today to say more about the Tartagliones’ involvement in elections against him.
More generally, when the top election official is a ward leader and her deputy is taking sides in elections her office is supervising, it invites suspicion and undermines confidence in the election process.

Marge Tartaglione apparently saw nothing wrong with her daughters' actions and threatened to punch out a Philadelphia Weekly reporter who questioned her about the incident.

The progressive community has a real stake in honest elections. Tartaglione was implicated in a 1993 scandal involving tainted absentee ballots which were allowed to be counted to help a Democrat win in the Second Senate District. Tartaglione’s history of questionable practices regarding absentee ballots is described in Bob Warner’s Daily News profile:

[In 1994] 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.
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.

The Committee of Seventy has advocated making the City Commissioners non-elected positions to remove them from the political arena. There are arguments on either side of this, but what is beyond argument is that a ward leader like Marge Tartaglione should not be running elections!

Stephanie Singer has pledged to resign her position as ward leader if she wins and is committed to separating partisan politics from the running of elections. Singer's commitment to Democratic principles is evident in the conduct of her ward where endorsement decisions are made by majority vote of committeepeople. Unfortunately, there are very few wards in the city which operate according to democratic principles. Needless to say, Tartaglione’s ward is not one of them.

Among the many sharp contrasts between Singer and Tartaglione is the way they have run their wards. This matters to progressives. In this primary season, we have seen that in democratically run wards, wards where committee people actually VOTE on endorsements, progressive candidates like Sherrie Cohen and Andy Toy have a chance of being endorsed.

Corrupt and undemocratic practices are not the only way progressives are hurt by having someone like Tartaglione in charge. Building a progressive movement depends in large part on increasing voter turnout, especially in working class and low income communities. As activists like Tracey Gordon have discovered, many ward leaders don’t want to increase turnout. They would rather deal with a relatively small number of voters they can influence than deal with an influx of new voters.

When I went to my first State Committee meeting last year, I heard people around the State talking about how they had to work harder because they could no longer count on huge numbers coming out of Philadelphia to elect Democratic candidates in state-wide races. Not only are many ward leaders in the Philadelphia Democratic Party undemocratic, and in the case of Marge and Renee Tartaglione engaged in corrupting the democratic process, but they’re also no longer delivering the goods. Singer is committed to changing that and as she states on her website, “work tirelessly and creatively to build a culture of voting in Philadelphia.”

Most progressive activists understand the importance of cleaning up the City Commissioners’ office to ensure fair, impartial elections and to increase political participation. This is why every progressive organization in the city has endorsed Singer. Many of our non-activist friends and family members may not be paying attention to these races. Let’s remind them of what's at stake and send out a message to our email lists and Facebook friends to vote for Singer!

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