The three-member city elections commissioners’ panel will have at least one new face because nine-term incumbent Democratic chairwoman Marge Tartaglione was defeated in the primary.
Incumbent Republican Joe Duda hopes there is no more turnover after Tuesday’s election, while GOP challenger Al Schmidt believes a second new member would make the commission more effective.
Tartaglione was toppled for several reasons.
Many voters were turned off because she was involved in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP).
A bunch of ward leaders who had supported her in the past abandoned her because of her backing of Marty Bednarek over Bobby Henon for City Council. Others were angry at state Sen. Tina Tartaglione for her votes in Democratic Senate leadership elections and took it out on her mother.
Also, there was a well-funded challenger in Stephanie Singer.
Singer and low-key incumbent Anthony Clark were the winners in the Democratic primary and will almost certainly be elected because of their party’s huge voter-registration advantage.
Duda and Schmidt are battling for the final spot. While Duda edged Schmidt in the primary, most political observers expect Schmidt to oust the incumbent because of his advantage in fund-raising and well-organized campaign strategy.
Schmidt, who has a campaign office on Ryan Avenue in Mayfair, is a former senior analyst with the U.S. Government Accountability Office and was the Republican candidate for city controller in 2009. Today, he is the GOP leader of the 38th Ward in East Falls and is considered the unofficial leader of a group opposed to longtime party bosses Vito Canuso and Mike Meehan.
The year 2011 is a so-called “off-year election,” but Schmidt said it is an important one.
If elected, Schmidt would resign as ward leader.
“That’s a terrible conflict,” he said of holding both posts.
Schmidt has been endorsed by a wide range of people and organizations, including former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, The Philadelphia Inquirer, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, Iron Workers Local Union 401 and the Pentecostal Clergy PAC.
“They all have an interest in fair elections in Philadelphia,” he said.
As a commissioner, Schmidt would refuse a city-owned car and gasoline.
“Their job involves driving from home to the office and back home again,” he said.
The challenger would take a 10-percent pay cut from an annual salary of about $120,000. In years when he is running for re-election, he would take a 25-percent pay cut, since commissioners are not permitted to perform all their duties when their names are on the ballot.
In office, he would put all election forms online, including nominating petitions, voter registration forms and polling place locations.
“It’s an issue of leadership of the office,” he said.
Schmidt would make public all of the office’s expenses. He explained that elections in Philadelphia cost more than other big cities and are, on average, twice as costly as other counties in the state. He doesn’t have an answer why.
“The city commissioners’ office is not particularly open about its spending,” he said.
At a forum on Saturday in Northern Liberties, Schmidt described the office as autonomous and anonymous. He said commissioners do not justify their spending in front of City Council.
“Make sure they’re there and ask those questions,” he implored Council candidates who were in attendance.
Duda, a Parkwood resident for more than 40 years and longtime city GOP loyalist, was elected in 1995. He replaced John Kane, who had been elected in 1975, the same year as his fellow Oxford Circle resident, Tartaglione.
In this election, he has been endorsed by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.
Noting that Clark is completing his first term and Singer and Schmidt are newcomers, Duda argues that Philadelphians need some stability in the office.
“I’m the most experienced,” he said. “I know what we’re doing. You need experienced people to guide you, regardless of party.”
The incumbent, who is Republican leader of the 66th Ward, has campaigned at forums, but said he’s skipped ones where he expects Schmidt supporters to dominate the conversation.
“Wherever it’s legit and I’m not going to get beat up [verbally], I’m glad to go,” he said.
As part of his job, Duda helps make sure roughly 3,500 voting machines get to 1,687 divisions across the city for the primary and general elections. The commissioners are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to add ramps to more locations to make them handicapped-accessible.
Duda credited the commissioners with selecting a company called Danaher Corp. to replace the old mechanical-lever voting machines with touch-screen electronic machines.
“The machines, when I got in, were from 1937. Elections officials would tally results by hand after thirteen, fourteen hours,” he said. “We picked out new ones that had the best guarantees and warranties and had the least expensive price. The cartridges have a paper trail and can be read in one-and-a-half seconds.”
The commissioners, according to Duda, did an excellent job in 2008, when 300,000 new voter applications forms arrived in the office.
As a way of helping the city’s finances, the commissioner has not taken a raise this year. He has also ruled out enrolling in the controversial DROP.
“I’m not taking DROP,” he said.
If re-elected, he hopes the new-look City Council will provide the commissioners with more money in their budget for, among other things, increased pay for poll workers. They generally get paid $95 for working 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
“That’s not even minimum wage,” he said.
Duda, like Schmidt, declined to reveal whether he would vote for Clark or Singer for chairperson. The incumbent wouldn’t discuss campaign strategy.
“Do the Eagles tell you what their game plan is when the game is on?” he asked. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org