Once upon a time in the land of Philadelphia, elections were controlled by three wizards (City Commissioners, technically) of great political might. Chief among them was wizardess Marge, of the powerful House of Tartaglione, and those she did not love lived in the shadow of her wrath. Good-government groups were mocked. Reporters were cast aside — or, in one case, threatened with the proverbial knuckle sandwich. Elections were largely the province of those within castle walls, and woe unto the hapless voter who tried to cross its frothy moat.
But then, things changed: In the May Democratic primary last year, upstart ward leader Stephanie Singer defeated Tartaglione handily, abruptly ending decades of political entrenchment. In November, upstart Republican Al Schmidt upended another impressively long run, by City Commissioner Joe Duda. Suddenly, two of the three people entrusted with Philly’s elections were returning calls, advocating for reforms and opening their arms to the unwashed masses of reporters and watchdogs with pesky questions about the administration of democracy. So it seemed. But lately, it’s hard to tell whether this fairy tale is linear or circular.
For weeks, groups monitoring this election — notably, Committee of Seventy and the Advancement Project — have been raising questions to the City Commissioners about their progress in clearing a 28,000-strong (as of Oct. 24) backlog of unprocessed voter applications. But as press releases alerting the public to this backlog began to appear, the collective shoulder of our commissioners grew noticeably colder. A letter from Seventy received no reply. And in the days following the deadline set by Singer to clear the backlog, this reporter’s attempts to learn whether that goal had been met were rebuffed: Commissioners Singer and Anthony Clark did not respond to queries; Schmidt took a call but offered no numbers. Then, at a (postponed) meeting Nov. 2, the commissioners announced the backlog was cleared. When Seventy’s Ellen Kaplan asked whether voters whose applications had been rejected would receive notification in time, she received no proper answer.
It’s a contrast to the good vibes that surrounded the election of these commissioners. Sure, reporters and good-government types tend to get aggressive. But asking hard questions is their job — just as it’s the job of the commissioners to answer those questions for as long as the watchdogs, the reporters and the good people of Philadelphia ask them.
Man Overboard! greets the unwashed masses at firstname.lastname@example.org.