Danny Savage and Tomas Sanchez weren’t the only challenges confronting Tina Tartaglione in last week’s Democratic primary for her Pennsylvania Senate seat. Tartaglione’s obstacles also included her legendary political family’s past as well as a growing force considered by many as the city’s political future.
In Savage, leader of the 23rd Ward in the Lower Northeast, Tartaglione faced the chosen candidate of John J. Dougherty’s ubiquitous International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 and all the financial and logistical might that comes with that endorsement.
Zack Stalberg, president of the nonpartisan, not-for-profit election watchdog group Committee of Seventy, was recently quoted by KYW radio referring to Local 98 as “the most powerful institution in Philadelphia, and possibly the state.” Indeed, Local 98-backed candidates claimed nominations for a U.S. House seat with Brendan Boyle and a state House seat with Mike Driscoll, in addition to winning a special election for a vacant City Council at-large seat with Ed Neilson, although the union’s gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz came up short on Election Day.
While Local 98’s support helped Boyle overcome former congresswoman and Clinton in-law Marjorie Margolies in the race for Schwartz’s longtime U.S. House seat, a union-backed blitz of direct mailings and broadcast media ads couldn’t take down the five-term incumbent state senator, who garnered her own bloc of organized labor support, including teamsters, carpenters, sprinkler fitters and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776.
Tartaglione remains a dues-paying Local 1776 member despite being confined to a wheelchair as a result of a 2003 boating accident. On election night, she reveled in staving off the Local 98 onslaught emphatically, with 51 percent of the vote. Savage took 29 percent and Sanchez 20 percent.
“I cannot express how grateful I am to labor. They stood up to John Dougherty, and we won. We won!” Tartaglione told the Northeast Times while flanked by mother Marge Tartaglione and Local 1776 President Wendell W. Young IV. “We drew a line in the sand.”
Tartaglione will be the heavy favorite over Republican nominee John J. Jenkins III in November due to her party’s enormous registration advantage in the district.
Sanchez’s candidacy figured to present its own set of challenges for Tartaglione, who has represented the 2nd district since 1995. Following the latest Senate re-mapping, the diverse district stretches as far as Bustleton and Holmesburg into the Northeast, while spanning south into Kensington and Fairhill, with their large Latino populations.
The Philadelphia Inquirer endorsed Sanchez, who is the husband of City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. He headed a slate of candidates that included three of the councilwoman’s staff members who were vying for state House seats. They had hoped for strength in numbers, but only Jason Dawkins emerged victorious with an 89-vote win over freshman incumbent James W. Clay in the 179th district. About 4,300 votes were cast in the district.
As for Tartaglione’s race, Savage always figured to be her top challenger, largely because of her family’s recent history with Local 98 and Dougherty. In 2011, the union backed Bobby Henon for City Council’s 6th district seat to replace the retiring Joan Krajewski. Marge Tartaglione, chairwoman of the city commissioners at the time, went against the electricians and supported Marty Bednarek. Henon won.
Meanwhile, Local 98 endorsed another ward leader, Stephanie Singer, over Marge in her own primary. Singer won, bringing to an end Tartaglione’s 36-year run in the commissioners’ office.
This year, Local 98 backed Savage, who served 13 months in City Council in late 2006 and 2007 after winning a special election to replace Rick Mariano, who had been convicted of fraud. Savage lost his 7th district seat to Quinones-Sanchez in the 2007 primary.
While the electricians spent at least $100,000 this year on cable television ads for Savage, according to The Public Record, the challenger’s preferred method seemed to be the mailboxes of 2nd district voters. The campaign sent out more than a dozen unique postcards, many of which claimed that Tartaglione skipped “more than 1,100 votes” in the Senate and that she “doesn’t show up for work.”
Further, Savage ridiculed the incumbent for sponsoring bills to create “Massage Therapy Awareness Week” and “Mushroom Month,” while accusing the senator, her mother, her sister Renee and her brother-in-law Carlos Matos of “abusing our tax dollars for too long,” citing a series of controversies involving the family. Renee Tartaglione formerly worked under Marge in the commissioners’ office, while Matos is Democratic leader of the 19th Ward despite being a convicted felon.
“When they bring my mother in, it’s personal,” Tina Tartaglione said, “because my family had nothing to do with me being a senator.”
Tartaglione said she still considers her first campaign in 1994 as her toughest. That November, she unseated Republican Bruce Marks, who had claimed the seat seven months earlier following a successful legal challenge over Democrat William Stinson. Stinson initially had been declared the victor over Marks in a 1993 special election to replace Francis Lynch, who had died in office, but the court found the Stinson campaign guilty of election fraud and reversed the outcome.
Yet, this year’s campaign had some pretty strange dynamics, too.
“This election, I was getting hit from both ends. In the  election, it was just the two of us going head-to-head,” Tartaglione said. “And I tried to stay positive. I was the only one who had a record to stand on, so I really wasn’t running. I was doing my job, like I do every day.”
At least 16 pro-Tartaglione mailings were sent out by her own campaign, the Democratic State Committee, the “EmpowerPAC” political action committee and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. Many accused Savage of “lying” and “misleading voters” about Tartaglione’s record while labeling him as “insulting,” “rotten” and “not fit to serve.” Other mailings touted the incumbent’s support for raising the minimum wage and more education funding, while portraying her as a fighter who overcame her injuries to remain involved in the Senate.
One variable that Tartaglione’s camp didn’t plan may also have benefitted her. About a week before the election, four unions including electricians returned to their jobs at the Pennsylvania Convention Center after agreeing to new work rules. Meanwhile, teamsters and carpenters were locked out after they reportedly failed to agree to the new rules before a deadline set by the Convention Center. That set up a May 5 scenario in which dozens of union workers picketed the center, while others reported for work. Philadelphia police were deployed to monitor the scene, which did not turn violent according to published reports.
The teamsters and carpenters “were already there” behind Tartaglione in the election, the senator said before adding, “There was a little bit more motivation from some groups.” ••