City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer Just Can’t Get Along

They were supposed to be this era’s best reform candidates, but thanks to the divisive voter ID law and political infighting, it looks like nothing’s going to change—at least, not due to Singer and Schmidt.

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Stephanie Singer is warming to her point.

For 45 minutes she has been explaining the arcane workings of elections in Philadelphia to a few dozen would-be reformers gathered in a classroom at the Community College of Philadelphia. Her presentation has included role playing, an accounting of the outsized political influence of the Jewish vote in Washington, D.C. (“What’s so special about Israel?” she asks. “France doesn’t get that kind of treatment”), and repeated references to her margin of victory in 2011’s Philadelphia elections.

But that was just buildup.

“I tell you what number I really care about. The number I really want is one million, one hundred thousand.” This, she says, is the total number of registered voters in Philadelphia. “I want to be able to go to the governor of Pennsylvania with that number … on my forehead, and say, ‘Help us with our school system. Or, ‘Governor, don’t get rid of general assistance.’” Now she starts to yell. “Or; ‘DO NOT SIGN THAT VOTER ID LAW!’”

There’s no denying that Singer’s presentation is stirring, if a bit unorthodox. She certainly has the crowd with her, so it’s easy to look past the fact that as a city commissioner, the 48-year-old Singer has as much pull with the Governor as any other individual Philadelphia voter, which is to say, none at all. It’s also easy to see why Singer, as recently as a year ago, was considered the fresh face of reform in Philadelphia, the woman who took on the notorious Marge Tartaglione—the epitome of the city’s onerous Democratic machine—and won with ease. As I watch her on this night, she’s earnest, intelligent and endearingly quirky, and it’s easy to see why this magazine (at my urging, no less) dubbed her Philadelphia’s best political newcomer in 2011.

Easy, that is, if you forget entirely that the past year has taken place.

“Wait,” a man in the audience says, early in the evening. “Who are you? Are you Singer?”

She nods. A look of compassion flickers across the man’s face. Then he blurts out: “What happened to you?

It’s a good question, and one that a lot of reform-minded Philadelphians have been asking. Almost 14 months after Singer took office vowing to bring “free and fair” elections to Philadelphia, she and her fellow commissioners are stonewalling a panel appointed by Mayor Nutter to probe Election Day irregularities. Meanwhile, Singer is now openly at war with her fellow commissioners, including reform Republican Al Schmidt, who took office with her and had been expected to play Joe Clark to her Richardson Dilworth. Instead, Schmidt masterminded a surprise coup, teaming up with sole incumbent commissioner Anthony Clark (a figure best known for spending as little time in the office as possible) to depose Singer from her chairmanship immediately after Election Day last fall.

One might expect a Republican-led putsch of a Democratic elections boss to generate major controversy in a city like Philadelphia. But the widespread perception was that Singer had bungled the job, and few Democrats objected. Consider that 12 days before the presidential election in November, Singer dashed off an email to 2,000 of her closest friends, including many in the media, that began: “As a woman, and as a Jew, I am horrified at the prospect of Republican control of government.” Singer went on, “If you are glad to see me doing the work I am doing, please consider this: It would have been much harder to dedicate myself to work through my entire adult life to date if I had to either prepare for the prospect of unplanned motherhood or forego that natural, healthy source of joy and comfort, sex.”

Uh, too much information, Commissioner? And too much partisanship as well, considering the email was sent on the eve of a contentious contest by the very woman responsible for overseeing a free and fair election in Philadelphia. And yet as glaring as her mistakes may have been, Singer’s quick political demise tells us as much about the city’s political culture as it does about her personal failings. In truth, reformers in Philadelphia usually disappoint, if not always quite so spectacularly.

 

Once upon a time, the three elected city commissioners had real power. Over the years, though, their duties—oversight of the courts and prison system, for instance—have been whittled away. Now the commissioners exist to do one thing and one thing only: administer Philadelphia’s elections.

It’s a challenging job, and one that requires a large staff of skilled civil service workers. It’s less clear that it makes sense to directly elect—and pay handsomely—three politicians to oversee an operation that, ideally, should be run as apolitically as possible. The commissioners are one of the body politic’s vestigial organs, like the tonsils or an appendix; they can cause all manner of problems, but it’s not entirely clear what good they do.

For 35 years, the office was the personal playpen of Tartaglione, a larger-than-life figure on the city’s political circuit. In the 1970s, she was arrested for supposedly moving voting machines—and was reelected. In the 1990s, she was called before a grand jury investigating suspected vote tampering—and was reelected again. She’s famous for physical altercations, including the time she knocked a cigar out of a fellow ward leader’s mouth, and once said of federal election observers dispatched to observe her office, “These young guys, they think they’re Hitler.” Tartaglione’s daughter, Renee Tartaglione, resigned her patronage job as her mother’s deputy in 2010 after the city Ethics Board concluded she violated the ethics code on nine separate occasions. And Carlos Matos, Renee Tartaglione’s husband (and Marge Tartaglione’s political ally), was sentenced to three years in prison for bribing three Atlantic City council members. To cap it all off, Tartaglione was a DROP-er, one of a handful of elected officials who “retired” to collect a lump-sum pension payment—in her case, $288,136—only to return to work a day later when their new terms in office began.

This was the swamp Stephanie Singer vowed to drain as she campaigned to replace Tartaglione in 2011. She seemed ideally suited to the job. Singer was relatively new to the city. She was smart. And she had a background that could not have been more different from that of a political mud wrestler like Tartaglione. A former Haverford College professor who specialized in the mathematics of atomic particles, Singer is the daughter of Washington, D.C., elites. Her father was a lawyer; her mother was an accomplished molecular biologist. Their family friends included the powerful and famous. (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiated at Singer’s first wedding.)

Yet for all that, Singer doesn’t come across as a refined intellectual. She’s an ebullient figure, with a mind that flits ea­sily—too easily, maybe—from one s­ubject to the next. She’s the sort of person who wears American-flag-themed sunglasses on Election Day and, when told she’s thought of as kind of kooky, embraces the description. “Look, if I were more perfect, I’d be a supermodel,” she says from her office on the first floor of City Hall. “I can live with kooky.”

During her 2011 campaign, Singer’s eccentricities came across as endearing. She was perfectly serious about the problems in the commissioners office, and she’d already shown—by publishing reams of city election data on her own website—that she was committed to transparency. And unlike some other reform candidates, Singer wasn’t too pure for party politics. In 2008, she was elected leader of Center City’s powerful Eighth Ward.

The more involved she became, the more fascinated—and disgusted—Singer grew. “This city’s political system, it’s a really robust organism, right? It keeps surviving,” she says. “And it was really, really interesting for me to learn how it works. We know who the powerful people are, but how are they powerful? What is the real action taken to exert that power? I was fascinated, because it certainly didn’t work the way I had been taught it worked in school.”

And Singer wasn’t alone in her crusade. Al Schmidt, 41, an equally compelling figure, was running for commissioner on the Republican ticket. Schmidt had made his local reputation by helping to lead an insurrection against the city’s complacent and incompetent Republican leadership. Like Singer, Schmidt was a PhD (political history, from Brandeis University) who’d moved to Philadelphia from Washington, where he was a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. And like Singer, he had impeccable reformer credentials.

They were smart, where the incumbents were dim (excepting Tartaglione, who is as wily as they come). They were forward-looking, where the old guard was stuck in the past. And, critically, there were two of them. It was a chance for a bipartisan housecleaning: Elect both—the GOP is effectively guaranteed at least one commission seat—and the reformers would have a majority of the three-member commissioners’ office.

Reform voters answered the call. (So did electricians union boss John Dougherty, but more on that later.) Singer and Schmidt both won handily. Tartaglione was banished, and the technocrats were ascendant. Surely all would soon be well.

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