Running against the machine

Not many political candidates seek to abolish the office they’re running for. Two contenders in Philadelphia show that this isn’t a typical election year.

This is about two local offices voters know little if anything about–the sheriff and the three-member city commission, which supervises elections.

Let’s start with how you get elected to these jobs. Here’s Marge Tartaglione, a city commissioner for 35 years.

“If you think you want to run for election, you go get petitions, file them, and may the best person win,” said Tartaglione.  “And (if) the voters aren’t satisfied with me, so be it.”

Okay, but that’s not really how it works. Since most voters know nothing about these offices or the candidates, the winner is typically the one who’s on the most sample ballots handed out on Election Day. So it’s really a vote among Philadelphia’s 69 ward leaders. The candidate they back gets on those sample ballots

So what chance does a candidate have with this message: “Elections should control politicians. Politicians should not control elections.”

That’s Stephanie Singer, a self-styled reform Democrat who’s running for commissioner. And there’s John Kromer, running for the sheriff’s office.  “It’s headed by a politician who’s elected by a group of ward leaders, and when that happens, I think problems like the ones we’ve heard about inevitably arise,” said Kromer.

Kromer is a former city housing director. Like Singer, he’s a policy wonk with no real political juice. They’ll campaign against cronyism, waste and corruption–and for abolishing their offices as elected posts–a sure losing formula in any normal year.

But these days, they aren’t the only ones taking a shot at politicians running these posts.

“They are spending a lot of money. In some cases they’re spending a lot of money on their friends, on patronage or on their relatives,” said Zack Stalberg of the reform group the Committee of Seventy.  Stalberg is among those campaigning to do away with the commissioners and sheriff’s post.

Both offices have tasted scandal in the past year. Several high level staffers from the sheriff’s office have been fired, and forensic auditors are combing over records, generating regular headlines. Marge Tartaglione’s deputy, her daughter Rene, was forced out after an ethics probe found her involved in political work prohibited by the city charter.

And this will be a municipal election that so far doesn’t look like it will have a competitive mayoral primary, so these races could get media attention–increasing voter awareness and potentially diminishing the influence of ward leaders.

Marge Tartaglione doesn’t seem worried.  “Look, I been here, I think I do an excellent job,” she said.  “If you don’t like it, don’t vote for me. And the day after the election we’ll see who wins, who loses.”

There may be several other candidates for both offices. The deadline to file is March 8th. The primary is May 17th.

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