Margaret “Marge” Tartaglione, 86, a political power in Philadelphia for four decades and onetime chairwoman of the Board of City Commissioners, died Tuesday morning.
As longtime Democratic chairwoman of the 62nd Ward in Northeast Philadelphia and head of the city agency that oversees elections, Mrs. Tartaglione held considerable sway. In a town known for political eccentricities, a visit to the ward meetings she held in the basement of her Oxford Circle home was a singular and sometimes nerve-racking experience.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, called Mrs. Tartaglione an “old-school politician.” Although out of office for nearly a decade, she was still a ward leader at the time of her death.
“She was a warrior,” Brady said. “She spoke her mind. She fought for all her constituents, all her committee people.… She was a major fighter.”
A raspy-voiced woman with a lacerating wit, Mrs. Tartaglione was a canny operator in one of the nation’s last urban Democratic machines, dominated by men when she came to power.
Mrs. Tartaglione was also the matriarch of a political family that includes daughters State Sen. Christine “Tina” Tartaglione and Renee Tartaglione Matos, who served as chief of staff of her mother’s city commissioners office until she was forced out following a city Ethics Board investigation, and ultimately was imprisoned on federal fraud and theft convictions.
When he last saw her, on primary election day May 21, Mrs. Tartaglione appeared to have lost some weight, Brady said. She more recently had been moved to hospice care, he said.
“She had a lot of health issues,” the Democratic leader said. “She always fought back. This one, I guess she couldn’t fight back.”
Sen. Tartaglione on Tuesday issued a statement calling her mother “a very strong yet compassionate woman.”
“At a time when women were rarely afforded a seat at the table, she not only earned a seat, she became an enduring leader and icon who will always be revered and remembered fondly,” the statement said.
Frank DiCicco, a former city councilman, recalled Mrs. Tartaglione’s making candidates sing in front of her ward committee members before considering them for an endorsement. DiCicco said he sang “I Had a Dream,” a song he grew up harmonizing with friends on South Philadelphia street corners.
He also recalled Jim Kenney, then a candidate for Council and now mayor, trying but failing to get out of the task. “He sung some Irish song,” DiCicco said. “But he wasn’t happy about it.”
It was worth it, DiCicco said, because Mrs. Tartaglione was always true to her word. “If she told you she was with you, she was always there,” he said.
Mrs. Tartaglione was defeated in a tough reelection campaign for city commissioner in 2011. Disgusted as her political career went south, she told reporters at a public meeting during the race that she was done talking to them.
“Put down anything you want, I don’t care,” she said. “I service people. I do my job.”
She won her first citywide election as commissioner in 1975 on Mayor Frank L. Rizzo’s ticket, as he was seeking to consolidate control of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Tartaglione was not one for diplomatic language. She famously once dressed down a fellow commissioner, Eugene E.J. Maier, when he finished speaking in a 1976 meeting by replying, “Are you finished? Then wipe yourself.”
In 2010, Mrs. Tartaglione threatened a Philadelphia Weekly reporter who asked about daughter Renee’s ethics case. “Now, if you say that, I can jump over this table and punch you out,” the then-77-year-old said.
Lisa Deeley, the current chairwoman of the city commissioners, called Mrs. Tartaglione a “larger-than-life individual who left her mark” on the city while opening doors for women in local politics.
“The chairwoman made members of the old boys’ club stand up and take notice, and if they crossed her, she would let them know, persistently,” Deeley said.
Tim Dowling, now the chief deputy commissioner, said Mrs. Tartaglione gave him his start with the agency in 1987 and served as a mentor to him and many other employees, showing a “huge heart” along with her well-known brash side.
“She was a tough, straightforward woman who pulled no punches and always demanded the best of people,” Dowling said.
City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district included part of Mrs. Tartaglione’s ward when he first ran for office in 2011, said he vividly remembers attending one of her ward meetings.
“It was in the basement there, full of smoke, a bunch of her committee people there,” he said. “It was like a bar there. It was pretty tight. You had, like, a couch, a TV, and behind that was a little bar area, sitting area, and it was pretty dark.”
Mrs. Tartaglione was drinking beer, he said. She and the committee people mostly asked about city services, not bigger political issues.
“Their main concerns were quality-of-life-type issues, and if their committee people would call, would you be able to jump on it, whether it was a pothole or a streetlight,” Squilla said. “It didn’t seem like they were that concerned with specific policy.”
State Rep. Mike Driscoll (D., Phila.) said he once took a risk at one of Mrs. Tartaglione’s ward meetings by bringing his friend Bill Green, who at the time was running for City Council.
Mrs. Tartaglione, an acolyte of Rizzo’s, was not a fan of the candidate’s father, former Mayor William J. Green III, who had campaigned on reforming the city following the Rizzo administration. The younger Green got a frosty reception.
“She said, ‘Don’t think you’re royalty in our house,’” Driscoll recalled. “I think it helped him realize that if you’re going to be a candidate, you’re fair game.”
And in the end, Mrs. Tartaglione warmed to Green. “She actually wound up dancing with him in the basement of Finnegan’s Wake,” he said, “at one of her fund-raisers.”
Driscoll first met the future city commissioner when he was attending grade school with daughter Christine.
“I knew her as ‘Mrs. Tartaglione’ first,” Driscoll said. “We knew her as a tough mother and obviously as a tough politician.”
In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Tartaglione is survived by a son, Eugene Jr.; daughter Mary Ann Rossi, nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Daughter Margaret Rivelli died in 2006. Mrs. Tartaglione’s husband, Eugene, died at age 82 in 2008. They had been married for 58 years.