Close to 50 mayoral forums have been held this election season. Tuesday night, candidates for City Commissioner gathered for their first – and likely only public Q&A, attended by about 60 people.
A quick civics lesson – the city's three commissioners – whose salaries range from $107,000 to $134,000 a year, oversee the city's elections and voter registration. They serve four-year terms.
This year, six Democratic candidates are running for two majority party seats. Incumbent Republican Commissioner Al Schmidt is running unopposed for the minority seat.
Tuesday night, all but one candidate gathered upstairs at a Center City bar to talk voter turnout, ethics and to tout their respective experience. Anthony Clark, the board's chair and the only incumbent Democrat up for reelection, did not attend. Clark was criticized last year when it was revealed he hasn't voted since 2011.
Incumbent Democrat, Commissioner Stephanie Singer, was booted off the ballot for not having enough valid petition signature.
Moderators Chris Brennan, from the Inquirer and Patrick Kerkstra, of Citified asked the questions. Here's a brief rundown:
In a city where only 36 percent of voters cast ballots in the November general election, Kerkstra asked if the candidates think it's the job of the city commissioner to increase voter turnout.
Omar Sabir, a Democratic committee person in the 34th ward said absolutely, he suggested the Commissioner's office hold forums, get out into the communities and schools and consider bringing in interns. "We make this more complicated than it needs to be," he said.
Schmidt, who has done studies on the issue, noted some factors make turn out look lower than it is, like the fact that people aren't purged from the registered list until they've been inactive for five elections. Still, he said more outreach should be done.
Carol Jenkins, a political science professor who lives in University City, defended the low turnout – 22 percent – in the 27th ward, which she represents. "As everyone knows, in University City you have Universities," she said noting the list of registered voters is not accurate. "Maybe 10 percent of people still live there."
Will Mega, a high school dean who has run for city office three times before, managed to name drop P. Diddy during the evening by recalling the work he did with the rapper's Vote or Die campaign to register 1,000 college students in Pittsburg and Philadelphia during the 2004 election.
In his answer to a question on voter turnout, Mega criticized Clark for his absence. "There's an elephant in the room. We should be leading by example. I applaud you all for being here but the biggest slap in the face is we have a commissioner who does not vote and the fact that he's not here speaks for itself."
Tracey Gordon, former Deputy Commissioner of the Board of Elections from 2012-2014 was asked about a 2012 ethics violation for sharing political views on her Facebook page in violation of the city's restrictions on political activity. Her computer was also confiscated in 2014 and she was suspended without pay.
Gordon said the violation "doesn't affect my candidacy." She said her experience, having already worked in the office, made her uniquely qualified.
Most of the candidates are either ward leaders or committee persons. Some said they would give up those current posts if elected, others said they would hold onto them and manage any conflicts.
"You can't take politics out of political office," Deeley said, "I think it's good, it makes you more visible," but when pressed, she said she wouldn't remain a committee person.
A quirk of the job is that in the year the commissioners are up for reelection, they must recuse themselves from all decisions related to the office to avoid any conflicts.
A Common Pleas judge is appointed to take their place. Brennan asked if they'd support a mandatory pay cut during that year when their responsibilities to the job diminish. All but Gordon said they would.
"As deputy commissioner I worked 15 hour days, we worked til 10 at night," Gordon said.
On the topic of whether there is election fraud in the city, most of the candidates said instances of double voting or non-citizen voting appear minimal. Jenkins said if it existed she estimates it's limited to maybe three or four wards in the city.
Deeley said what fraud there is could likely be counteracted by perfecting poll books and better educating poll workers.
If there isn't fraud, Mega said there are certainly rules being broken. He said he always sees campaign literature within 20 feet of polls and over-zealous committee people at the polls. "This is Philadelphia, Philadelphia and Chicago are the last bastions of party politics," he said. "They'll hug you and rob you at the same time."
For a full list of candidate bios check out the Committee of Seventy website here.
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