We Were Expecting a Brawl at Last Night’s City Commissioner Debate
It’s about 8:15pm, Monday. The City Council at-Large debate at WHYY studios on North 6th Street is over. Three new candidates are on hand to talk about why they should be elected to the City Commission, the office in charge of running free and fair elections in Philadelphia. Sounds a bit boring, right? Read on.
The candidates include Stephanie Singer (D), Al Schmidt (R) and Joe Duda (R). Anthony Clark, who did not show up, is currently the second Democrat City Commissioner, alongside Marge Tartaglione. Singer beat Tartaglione in the primary this past spring, which means Marge’s reign of terror is through and unless God comes down and appoints all Republicans to office (note: Many Republicans outside Philadelphia believe this will actually happen), Singer will be the next Democrat City Commissioner, because one of the three office seats is reserved for the minority party. That leaves Schmidt and Duda, in office since 1995, to duke it out. And duke it out they do.
First thing’s first: Joe Duda doesn’t want cameras at the debate. Why? He doesn’t say, but everyone in the WHYY studio seems a bit turned off. No cameras? Then what’s the point? “No recording devises of any kind,” says Duda.
But snapping photos is OK. Hence, the image above.
OK. Singer and Schmidt both agree the city needs to regain trust in those who run their elections, citing Marge Tartaglione’s tenure in the office and the fact that her daughter, Renee, was involved in some major shenanigans, for which she was arrested last year. (Tartaglione would threaten to beat up a former PW reporter after being asked about this.) Both stated they’d first looked into the possibility of eliminating the office before deciding to run, and now think they can make a change.
For instance, elections in Philadelphia cost double what they cost in any other county in Pennsylvania, Schmidt says, and that’s a problem.
Duda disagrees. “I think we do a good job,” he says. “When I got in city office, machines were from 1937. Election officials were forced to add figures at the end of the night. Many were tired and mistakes would happen, human error. In 2002, we brought in electronic voting machines.”
He notes that 18 percent of all polling places in Pennsylvania are in Philadelphia. We’ve got about 1,800 machines. Compare that to Montgomery County, whose got about 300. He also says that Philadelphia processed 300,000 new voter applications in 2008, which would not have been possible years ago.
Both Singer and Schmidt say they will resign their ward leader status when elected. Schmidt says being a ward leader while working in the City Commissioner’s office, while legal, is unethical. Duda is a ward leader.
Duda disagrees there, too. He says a Rendell-era task force encouraged City Commissioners to stay political (and therefore continue their ward leadership) so they can “watch each other.”
“Everything…just said is what’s wrong with this office,” Schmidt responds.
And when he does, former Republican mayoral candidate John Featherman, sitting in the front row, and others, clap for Schmidt.
Duda stares down at them. “I could get my people to applaud, too,” he barks.
After Schmidt finishes his perhaps long response, Duda asks moderator Ellen Kaplan, Vice President and Policy Director of the Committee of 70: “How much time do you have to respond?”
“A 30-second rebuttal,” she says.
“I think we’re ahead of that,” he says with disdain, then a passive-aggressive shrug. “Let’s just go by the rules. That’s all.”
Schmidt and Duda’s overt personal anger is nothing new. When Schmidt ran for City Controller in 2009, he made a point of continually attempting to expose the corruption and deals between Republican and Democrat leaders in the city, and hasn’t slowed up since. He and some others can be credited for beginning the tide of “Loyal Opposition” Republican candidates that’ve been seen making waves this year. Which is probably why he got so many shout-outs at Republican debates in the spring. In the past, LO leader Kevin Kelly has described Schmidt to us as “a man of integrity and honor…that’s a man I want to be associated with.”
Some other musings:
- All three candidates agree the Voter ID law proposed in Harrisburg is flawed, though Schmidt seems most open to implementing the idea, given the state could provide Philadelphia with the resources to uphold the law, which the bill does not currently provide.
- Schmidt wants poll workers to make more money, though Duda says those working the single day at the polls aren’t necessarily looking for a payday, just civic engagement (and perhaps some fist throwing with New Black Panthers?)
- Duda says the city knew about “the ACORN situation” (in which it’s claimed the now-defunct community organizing group was involved in election fraud) in the 1990s but was unable to do anything about it.
- At one point, Duda claims he’s doing a good job because he’s getting Republicans out to vote, and Schmidt chimes in, “It’s not about Democrats and Republicans.” Duda: “Will you let me finish?”
The final question asks the candidates something voters should know about them. Kaplan says perhaps that question will be “less contentious.”
And less contentious it is. At first. Schmidt talks about his kids. Duda says he’s been in Philadelphia forever. Singer says democracy needs to be “re-born in Philadelphia.”
But then Al Schmidt brings up Duda’s use of the city car he’s got. “There’s no reason a City Commissioner should have a city car,” he says.
PW reported last year that Duda’s car was going about 100 miles a day—but to where? Duda says he lives in the Northeast, and sometimes has to drive back and forth a lot. But he doesn’t really answer the question. This Duda dude is pissed. That’s a solid hour.