A reformer plays the game

    Max Weiner was a tough, irascible consumer activist who spent years staging sit-ins, launching lawsuits, and dishing out populist rhetoric that reporters loved.

    He would run for elected office from time to time, too. He had enough of a profile to get votes, but not enough to win without courting mainstream Democratic leaders, which he refused to do.

    “Once you go in the back room with them,” he’d say, “you’re never the same.”

    Max died in 1989, but I thought of him last week as a couple of Philadelphia reformers actually won elections in the May 17 primary.

    Because I’m fascinated with the challenges and compromises that face progressives running for office, and the circumstances that allow them to win.

     

    Case in point: Stephanie Singer.

    This spring she became a Democratic candidate for city commissioner, the three member panel that runs elections in the city. It’s an office most voters know little or nothing about, so it’s usually won by those with the backing of ward leaders. The two Democratic incuments, Marge Tartaglione and Athony Clark were backed by the party and thus expected the support of most if not all the city’s 69 ward leaders.

    Singer is a center city ward leader herself, but one with a true reformer’s profile. Years ago she was so frustrated with the commissioners’ inability or refusal to post past election returns on the web that she set up her own site and sued state election officials to get the data she needed at a reasonable price. Her site is now up and serving the public for free.

    In her campaign, she targeted the 78-year old Tartaglione, a nine-term incumbent, leader of the 62nd ward in Northeast Philly and an emblem of machine politics.

    Tartaglione was weakened by an ethics probe that had forced her daughter’s resignation from her office last year, and by the $288,000 DROP payment she took four years ago.

    So Singer had a message, some momentum, and a chance for media coverage in a year when there was no mayor’s race to speak of.

    Still, conventional wisdom was that ward leaders rule in bottom-of-the-ticket races like this, so it was Marge’s to lose.

    And damn, she did.

    When the returns came in, Singer led all seven candidates for the two Democratic nominations for commissioner. Marge finished third, ending her 36-year political career. How did Singer do it?

    She went everywhere she could to meet voters, but she also raised serious money and went to the traditional pols that Max Weiner would avoid.

    I noticed when I was cruising polling places on election day that in Northeast Philly, leaders of 56th, 57th, and 58th wards were recommending Singer on their ballots, not Tartaglione. There were probably other wards as well – I couldn’t get everywhere in an afternoon.

    How much difference did that make?

    Singer outpolled Marge in those three wards by 1,602 votes. If voting in those three wards had gone instead as it did in the 45th ward, where ward leader Harry Enggasser supported Marge, Tartaglione would have gotten another 1100 votes, just enough to overtake the second place finisher Anthony Clark and return to office.

    I asked the leader of the 58th ward, State Sen. Mike Stack, why he’d supported Singer.

    “She reached out to me early on,” Stack said. “She left no stone unturned, stayed in touch, never took support for granted. And she was a terrific candidate.”

    So you have Stephanie Singer running as a reformer, but ready to play the game – calling ward leaders and other influential people, and when necessary, writing them checks.

    Singer’s campaign manager Shannon Marietta told me they paid John Sabatina, leader of the 56th ward $3,000 for coverage on ballots in several Northeast Philly wards. Sabatina didn’t return my call.

    It also seems that Singer benefitted from infighting among ward leaders.

    When I asked Marge Tartaglione on election day why Northeast ward leaders might abandon her, she said it was all about political retribution. Her daughter, State Sen. Tina Tartaglione hadn’t supported Stack for a leadership post in Harrisburg last year, and this, she said, was payback.

    I asked Stack about that.

    “I don’t put any credence in what she said,” he told me. “I believe people were just tired of the old political process, and wanted to go in a different direction.”

    Maybe, but the aforementioned Harry Enggasser of the 45th ward, one of three people fired from Stack’s office after the election, told Chris Brennan of the Daily News that Stack targeted Marge for defeat, and “it was all about Tina.”

    Marge’s daughter Rene told me she also believed some ward leaders cut her mom from their ballots because she was supporting City Council candidate Marty Bednarek against the favorite of powerful electricians’ union leader John Dougherty.

    In some respects, it was a perfect storm for Singer. Marge was tainted by DROP, the most potent political issue in Philadelphia in years and damaged by an ethics probe while mainstream Democrats were undercutting Tartaglione for their own reasons.

    But you have to give Singer credit. She did well even in areas where the machine backed Tartaglione, like the 21st ward in Roxborough/Manayunk. There, ward leader Lou Agre backed Marge, and Singer still beat her by a two-to one margin.

    One more thing interested me about Singer.

    When she began her campaign, she heartily endorsed the position of the Committee of Seventy and others that the commissioners should be abolished as an elected office.

    “I will get the politics out of elections by getting rid of elected commissioners and making sure that Philadelphia elections are in the hands of non-partisan professionals,” she said.

    Somewhere around mid-campaign, Singer changed her stance, saying voters should decide whether the office should be eliminated as an elected position.

    Over the weekend, I told her I wondered if she’d backed off eliminating one of the few sources of patronage in city government as she was courting the support of ward leaders.

    “Oh no, it really had nothing to do with that,” she said, in a way that certainly sounded convincing. “It really had to do with talking to voters. It surprised me, but voters told me it would be a form of disenfranchisement to take away their right to vote for that office.”

    This surprised me, too. I told her my impression was that most voters have no idea what that office does.

    “One of the things about campaigning is that you go all over the city, and talk to voters who aren’t like you,” she said.

    So, I asked, would you favor City Council putting a referendum before voters on eliminating the commissioners’ office as an elected post?

    “The first thing to do is to clean up the office,” she said.

    I respect reformers who get in elections to win, and who are prepared to engage both politicians and policy makers to enact reform. But it’s a challenge to keep your bearings as you play the game.

     

    In the last year of his life, Max Weiner was finally in an election campaign he had a chance to win.

    It was 1989, and he was running for city controller when the office was open, the city’s finances were a wreck, and his history of honest consumer advocacy resonated with voters.

    And I could see him change, just a little. He’d always been straight with reporters – telling the truth as he saw it and never going off the record.

    But when I got him on the phone during the campaign to ask him about rumored heart problems, he awkwardly assured me there was nothing to worry about. I could tell he was spinning, and that it made him sick. He just wasn’t cut out to be a player. He died two weeks before election day.

    Max was an outsider to the end. Come January, Singer will be an insider. Let’s hope she does the right thing.

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