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Philadelphia voters this year will elect three city commissioners, the people who run our elections. It's a safe bet many voters are unfamiliar with the incumbents, the other candidates, and the job.
Philadelphia voters this year will elect three city commissioners, the people who run our elections.
It's a safe bet many voters are unfamiliar with the incumbents, the other candidates, and the job.
That's the opinion of four former commissioners. They would know.
City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, Undersheriff Joe Vignola, political consultant Maurice Floyd, and lawyer Alex Talmadge Jr. - all former commissioners - say voters know little or nothing about the office.
"It's not a high-profile position," Floyd said.
Because of that low profile - and because candidates run during election years packed with more interesting races, for mayor and City Council - support from political party machinery is key to victory.
That's not exactly a recipe for meritocracy.
Consider our current commissioners, who oversee a staff of 96 and a $10.6 million budget.
Stephanie Singer, running as a reformer in 2011, bested nine-term Commission Chairwoman Marge Tartaglione in the Democratic primary.
Tartaglione was toppled by her own troubles.
The longtime ward leader drew the considerable wrath of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 2011 for endorsing a candidate challenging the union's political director for City Council.
She also took serious heat for collecting nearly $300,000 in a controversial retirement program in 2008 and then going back on the city payroll.
And her chief deputy, who happened to be her daughter, was forced to retire after admitting to violating the City Charter ban on political activity.
Singer mistook all that for a mandate. She was selected by her two colleagues as chairwoman when she took office in 2012. They ousted her 11 months later, fed up with her autocratic manner in meetings and tension between her and the staff.
Two weeks ago, a judge ordered Singer removed from the ballot in the May 19 Democratic primary after a legal challenge left her four names short of the 1,000 signatures needed on nomination petitions.
She is appealing that decision.
The spectacle of an elections official unable to survive a ballot challenge has been a source of fascination in political circles.
Singer's fellow Democrat Anthony Clark took her spot in the chairman's seat in 2012. He's not exactly known for showing up often at the office.
Commissioners are paid $125,207 per year. The chairman gets $134,149.
Clark ran for commissioner in 2003, withdrew from the race the day before the election, won anyway, and then tried to withdraw his withdrawal.
A judge kept Clark from taking office that year. He ran again in 2007 and won.
Philadelphia City Paper revealed in October that Clark did not vote in the previous five elections. He shrugged it off as a private matter.
So did the city's Democratic Party, which on Saturday endorsed Clark's bid for a third term.
That leaves Al Schmidt, who holds the seat the City Charter sets aside for members of the city's minority party - in this case, the Republicans.
Schmidt, now vice chairman and seeking a second term, is widely regarded as the office grown-up. He's running the show.
He's also the only Republican seeking the office this year. So you can call him Second-Term Schmidt, his victory assured.
Six Democrats are trying to claim the two seats held by Singer and Clark.
Lisa Deeley, a former staffer for the city controller and a city councilman, is the Democratic Party's pick.
She was also endorsed by the party Saturday.
Her campaign engineered the ballot challenge against Singer.
One of Singer's top aides, Tracey Gordon, is on the ballot after being forced out of her job amid an ethics investigation.
Singer's former chief deputy, Dennis Lee, was removed from the ballot due to mistakes he made filing the forms necessary to become a candidate.
Two Democrats now running for commissioner ran for Traffic Court in 2013 while the state General Assembly was legislating out of existence that long-troubled agency.
Voters would have to approve a charter change to eliminate the post of city commissioner.
Mayor Nutter floated that idea in 2008 but never found the political juice to make it happen.
The Committee of Seventy, a good-government election watchdog group, issued a report in 2009 about the money the city could save by eliminating the post.
Tasco drew up a plan in 1987, when she resigned as commissioner to run for City Council, to replace the post with an appointed director of elections.
Now retiring after seven terms on Council, Tasco doesn't seek that sort of change anytime soon.
"I don't know if the politics will allow it to happen," she said.