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.

So, what happened?

At least part of the trouble came from just how badly the decks are stacked against reformers in Philadelphia. By their very nature, reformers will almost inevitably alienate the people they’ll eventually rely on to enact their reforms. And so it was for Singer and Schmidt, who spent a year on the campaign trail bashing the city commissioners—and by extension, the civil service employees who work for them. It played well with voters, but made for a frosty experience once the two took office. Even now, some of those workers are openly contemptuous of their new bosses. At the last commissioners’ meeting, Fred Voigt, staff counsel for the commissioners and a man I’ve known for years, looked straight at me while Singer was speaking, then rolled his eyes as if to say, “Can you believe this woman is my boss?

As reformers so often are, Singer and Schmidt were also surrounded by political enemies outside the office. Singer in particular alienated huge swaths of the Democratic party, including party boss U.S. Rep Bob Brady (she picked as an aide an activist who once sued Brady) as well as virtually every ward leader in the city. (Singer has sought to end the office’s practice of hiring temporary patronage workers recommended by ward leaders.) And it wasn’t just the old guard that Singer pissed off. Progressive Democratic ward leaders like University City’s Carol Jenkins began to tire of her as well. “She jumped in with both feet on everybody’s face,” Jenkins says.

It’s obvious that Singer is stung by this sort of criticism, but she says much of it was inevitable. Reformers, she says, operate on a knife’s edge, without the stability a traditional political base provides. To illustrate her point, she grabs a snow globe on her desk—it’s got the Liberty Bell inside—and tips it over. She tries to stand it up with the globe side against the desk, but it falls down. “In physics, you would call this an unstable equilibrium,” she says. “In theory you can balance it, but only if you hold it up. If you let go for a second, it’s gonna fall.”

This is an astute observation, and Singer is full of such insights. And yet like too many reform politicians, she can be almost comically self-aggrandizing. “Democracy gives the people a chance to take things back, and I think we saw that with FDR, and I think we saw that with Barack Obama, and I think you saw that in my election,” she says, without a trace of irony.

This sort of casual self-righteousness is all too common among reform candidates. Singer’s apparent conviction that the people chose her to right historic wrongs is especially grating to political insiders, who are convinced she actually owes her victory to none other than John Dougherty. Doc’s organization backed Singer in 2011, not so much because he was impressed with her candidacy, but as a way to punish Tartaglione, who had refused to support Doc’s favored candidates in another race.

Still, for all the institutional obstacles to reform, what has really torpedoed hopes for quick and meaningful change among the commissioners is the toxic relationship that developed between Singer and Schmidt. Early on, the two appeared to get along well enough, passing an anti-nepotism policy, agreeing on staff ethics training and dealing a modest blow to the agency’s patronage culture.

Those accomplishments, though, only papered over a growing mutual distaste. As the months passed last year, commissioner meetings began to devolve into petty inter-office power struggles. The duo fought over which staffers report to which commissioner, and the composition of their staffs. They even fought about whether or not to hold meetings. (Schmidt and Clark deliberately skipped one session Singer had scheduled, forcing her to cancel it for lack of a quorum.)

Despite working out of adjoining offices in City Hall, Singer and Schmidt grew further apart. Over the summer, their partisan differences flared up, ignited by the proposed law requiring people to show valid photo IDs at the polls. Singer emerged as one of voter ID’s highest-profile opponents, writing op-eds and appearing on television and at rallies to denounce the law. Schmidt, meanwhile, avoided taking a public position, but his office did produce a carefully worded report probing voting irregularities in past Philadelphia elections. He published it in July, at the peak of the voter-ID frenzy. The report was seized upon by Republicans as evidence that the law was needed, while Singer dismissed it as “a stunt.”

By the fall, Singer and Schmidt were more or less declared enemies, unable to agree on even small agenda items. At a Se­ptember meeting just seven weeks before the election, the dysfunction was so o­bvious and public that Ellen Kaplan, a vice president for the Committee of Seventy, said she had “very serious and genuine concerns about these elections, based on the obvious hostility and rancor in this room between the commissioners and some staff members.”

When I ask Schmidt to explain what happened, he uses an awkward metaphor. “So you have two friends. One’s a man, one’s a woman, and they’re very similar in all sorts of ways. They both have PhDs, they want to do the same sort of thing. They’re perfect for one another,” he says. “But sometimes, it doesn’t work out quite as well as you’d hope.”

Singer, the revolutionary, wanted to upend the office immediately, and she wasn’t too fussed about the details. Schmidt, more of a technocrat, was leery of changing too much too fast, especially in a presidential election year. There were po­wer dynamics at play as well. Singer seemed to be under the Tartaglione-esque impression
that being chair meant she could run the office as she saw fit. Schmidt bridled at that. He’s an ambitious politician—too ambitious to be Singer’s yes-man.

When you talk to Singer and Schmidt, it’s easy to understand where each is coming from. Singer seems to think that Schmidt isn’t a reformer after all—that he talks a good game but is unwilling to do what’s necessary. Schmidt, meanwhile, seems to have concluded that Singer is an atrocious manager and too erratic to partner with. The sad thing is, both may be right.

 

Near the end of my conversation with Al Schmidt, he walks over to a bookcase and picks up his copy of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, the classic account of machine politics in New York. Schmidt calls my attention to chapter four, which is titled “Reformers Only Mornin’ Glories.” In it, George Washington Plunkitt, a big wheel in the Tammany machine, likens political reformers to short-lived morning glories that “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin’ forever, like fine old oaks.”

Schmidt is self-aware enough to realize that he and Singer are the morning glories in this story. “Reformers tend not to be professional politicians, right?” Schmidt says. “They come in with great enthusiasm and little understanding.” The understanding comes with time, and the lessons, Schmidt says, are painful: “It’s ugly and gritty and you’re up to your neck in muck.”

Plus, the standards are different for reformers. Party politicians like Tartaglione can get away with outright hackery, over-the-top eccentricity and the occasional brush with scandal. Their political bases expect it—hell, they love them for it. But reform voters are different. It’s not enough for their champions to be clean. They actually have to be effective. Singer and Schmidt have, so far, failed that test. Sure, they could rally. They could go on to prove that not all morning glories wither and die when exposed to the harsh conditions of actual governance.

But it’s worth asking: Were they the right choices in the first place? What the city needs, perhaps, is better reformers—those who are tougher, more charismatic, less alienating, and capable of working within a system even as they labor to change it. Which is, I realize, a lot to ask for. There’s a reason Philadelphia has only had one Richardson Dilworth.

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