What a rich political story lies beneath yesterday’s news that deputy city commissioner Renee Tartaglione had resigned and agreed to pay a $2,700 penalty for illegal political activity. The city Ethics Board had the goods on her, and she negotiated an agreement.
But here’s the back story:
First, there’s Renee’s pedigree. She’s been a city employee since 1984 because her mom, Marge Tartaglione, chairs the City Commissioners who run elections, and is an almost legendary figure of Philadelphia machine politics.
Marge is Democratic leader of the 62nd ward in Northeast Philadelphia, where she firmly presides over her committeepeople in the basement of her home on the Roosevelt Boulevard. If Marge is with you, you win the 62nd.
It’s one reason another of her daughters, Christine, is a state senator. Marge is a practiced veteran of ward politics, and Renee has been her loyal deputy for 26 years.
Second, Renee is married to Carlos Matos, the colorful present and former leader of the 19th ward in North Philadelphia. In between the present and former, he was serving prison time after pleading guilty to bribing public officials in Atlantic City. Part of the illegal political work Renee was involved in was running the 19th ward while Carlos was away.
Third, the political work that got Renee in trouble – helping a candidate for state representative, getting campaign materials printed, handling election day “street money” for her mom’s and husband’s wards – is exactly the kind of work that’s been done for years by scores of city employees.
Civil service employees weren’t engaged in that stuff, but it’s long been considered okay for patronage employees of elected officials – City Council members, City Commissioners, and others – to do political work on their own time. In fact the charter forbids that, and the new Ethics Board is enforcing the rules.
Fourth, Renee wasn’t accused of moving polling places, disqualifying voters, monkeying with returns, or interfering with the election process in any way. In my experience the staff of the commissioners play elections straight.
But fifth, this doesn’t look good in a couple of ways. 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.
That’s one reason why many reformers have long argued this shouldn’t be an elected office. Makes sense to me.