Where sheriffs come from

    If you’re old enough to remember Ralph “Boss Hog” Passio, then you know how long reformers in Philadelphia have felt let down by the men who’ve worn the sheriff’s badge in this town.

    Recently-retired Sheriff John Green’s administration has been widely criticized for cronyism and mismanagement. But I remember when Green came into office as a reformer, and it’s an interesting tale.

    Because we elect sheriffs in Philadelphia, and because it’s a dinky office voters know nothing about, the winner of the post has usually been the candidate with the most support among the city’s Democratic ward leaders.

    And back in the day, there was an unspoken understanding within the Democratic organization that the so-called row offices would be whacked up along racial lines: The clerk of quarter sessions would be black. The sheriff would be a white, and the two Democratic city commissioners would be one of each.

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    The last white guy to serve as sheriff was the aforementioned Passio, who ran the office as he liked and was regularly humiliated in investigative stories by Tyree Johnson of the Daily News, then ridiculed in columns by Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez.

    It was the gifted Lopez who dubbed him “Boss Hog.”

    There were stories about Passio giving deputy badges to his friends, shady characters getting access to sheriff sale records, and one of my favorites, the time he sent deputies to Virginia to pick up a prisoner, only to discover they’d read the paperwork wrong – they were supposed to have brought a prisoner from Philadelphia to Virginia.

    Passio was such a spectacle that he couldn’t credibly run for re-election in 1987, so the party had to pick a new candidate – a white guy.

    The organization’s choice was Anthony Iannarelli, the veteran leader of the 53rd ward in Northeast Philadelphia. But there was treachery – some white ward leaders strayed from the fold and backed a well-known former cop named Herb Rhodes, who refused to withdraw. There was another candidate in the mix named William Monteleone.

    That left an opening for Green, who’d made a bit of a name for himself as president of the Guardian Civic League, the organization of black police officers.

    He ran as a reform candidate, bucking the party machine. He got support from African American ward leaders and an unknown number of white voters who figured from his name he was Irish.

    And lo and behold, he won.

    I remember the sense of hope and promise that accompanied his inauguration, and the unending series of disappointments that followed. Stories about incompetence and cronyism abounded.

    Now, 24 years after Passio’s departure, the sheriff’s office will be up for election as an open seat. State Rep. Jewell Williams has the inside track on the Democratic organization’s support, and former city housing director John Kromer is running on a platform of abolishing the post as an elected office.

    That would require an amendment to the city charter, a proposal advocated by the reform group Committee of Seventy and others.

    As the election season heats up, forensic auditors from the City Controller’s office will be finding who knows what. Controller Alan Butkovitz told me this week the most urgent issue for auditors is “whether there was any theft of funds.”

    If the auditors start pulling out big, stinking globs of sleaze from the wreckage of the sheriff’s office, that can only increase support for abolishing the post.

    Or maybe we’ll go back to the old days, and get whomever the ward leaders want. Either way, you can read about it here.

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