Philadelphia’s Machine Politics Suffers a Blow

Will Governor Corbett seize the opportunity to change local GOP leadership?

Yesterday was historic in the scheme of Philadelphia political history. Of course, there is the obligatory nod to the apathy that a long forecasted low turnout produces. Let’s stipulate: The turnout was microscopic. But in a year in which the stakes of the election were actually quite high, the attention (from the media and the public) to articulating those stakes was quite low. It is hard to motivate a city of already stressed-out voters with lawn signs. Since there was no mayoral media campaign, there was no noise about the big issues. District Council candidates tend to stick to District knitting and are not focused on city-wide matters.

But despite the turnout, the voters did some pretty unique things.

First they said Enough! We don’t say that too often here. But DROP for elected officials—notably for those who want to have their cake and keep their jobs—was too offensive and too gluttonous to accept. With the exception of Marian Tasco, every Council member, and Marge Tartaglione, decided to bail or lost. Four incumbents retired and one was defeated. Whoa there! Voters with concerns about higher taxes, less services, cuts to education budgets and depleted personal retirement savings stood up and told the political class, “See ya!” Any member of that class who is contemplating joining DROP now can count on being retired by the public at the next election.

The voters also said good-bye to two DROPers who represent political family institutions. The defeat of Mrs. Tartaglione and Councilman Frank Rizzo end longstanding family political dynasties. These are names you knew. While State Senator Tina Tartaglione remains in office, her influence on electoral system mechanics has ended. This has implications for the Democratic Party and inside Latino political life where Carlos Matos, husband of Renee Tartaglione, had exercised influence emanating from his mother-in-law’s power. Rizzo, a likeable and hard-working constituent-oriented councilman, simply couldn’t see the firestorm that was out there for him.

The emergence of Stephanie Singer has enormous implications. She will be one of three city commissioners, replacing Mrs. Tartaglione. She is the first PhD to sit in that office. Generally speaking, that hasn’t been a job requirement. As a former candidate with a laser-like determination, I must say Singer’s focus and discipline impress me. She is a comer. If Al Schmidt, one of two Republicans nominated for this office and a leader of the anti-Republican machine faction, also wins in November, these two could align and change the entire culture of the Philadelphia electoral process. This could be truly historic and something to watch.

The sleepwalker of a mayoral race contained some very interesting surprises. First is how well T. Milton Street did. He never had a chance to win. But he received a significant vote—given his recent resume—and reinforced Nutter’s vulnerability among lower-income African Americans. Second, the Republican mayoral race—a 59-vote spread as of this writing—gives fodder to the anti-Meehan crowd and could spur Governor Corbett to seize the opportunity to change local party leadership. At the very least, John Featherman’s performance gives life to the Loyal Opposition.

It would also be myopic not to observe that the changing of the guard of Democratic Party leadership took a big step yesterday. IBEW 98 leader John Dougherty showed himself to be a “comeback kid.” He lost the senate election, licked his wounds, rebuilt bridges and backed Bobby Henon in the Sixth District. He crushed an experienced and well-regarded Northeast homeboy, Marty Bednarek, despite Bednarek’s heavy support from Marge Tartaglione and retiring Councilwoman Joan Krajewski. Dougherty partnered up with party boss Bob Brady to deliver Mark Squilla in Frank DiCicco’s district against a badly fractured opposition. And he likely had a significant say in the as yet unresolved battle waged by Barbara Capozzi against Kenyatta Johnson.

Dougherty’s ties to Councilman Bill Green and these polling successes set him up to be a significant player in the battle over the City Council presidency. Marian Tasco’s enrollment in DROP will give many new Council members pause. Do they really want the leader of that body stained by public rage over DROP? So the betting is that Darrell Clark is best positioned to be Council Prez. But count the number of second- and first-term members—7 Ds and 2Rs—and you have the makings for some potentially surprising outcomes there.

It would also be wrong not to recognize that Mayor Nutter gained some allies through his endorsements of Squilla, Cindy Bass and Johnson (if he wins) and that his legislative efforts should enjoy some greater level of support than he’s experienced to date.

It was not a great day for the machine politics. It was not a great day for the reformers.

But the seeds were planted for something that we might look back on and say, it wasn’t such a bad day for Philadelphia.

It’s just too bad so few of us played a role.