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.

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.