Marge Tartaglione dead at 86, marking end of an era in Philadelphia politics

Pat Loeb
July 09, 2019 - 1:10 pm
Marge Tartaglione

Courtesy of state Sen. Christine Tartaglione

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UPDATED: 4:30 p.m.

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Former City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione has died at the age of 86. She was a force in the Democratic Party and a distinctive character in Philadelphia politics for more than 40 years.

Elected to the Philadelphia City Commissioners in 1975, she was in office for barely a year when her reputation for being colorful, feisty and outspoken was set forever.

Friends, allies and occasional opponents all called her a straight shooter, declaring her death as the “end of an era.”

"There will never be another one. There will never be another Marge Tartaglione," said Bob Brady, Democratic Party chair. 

Brady said she was a fiercely loyal Democrat, which made her a controversial figure because, as city commission chair, she was in charge of ensuring non-partisan elections. But Brady said her party loyalty never interfered with her job.

"It was never a hint of a scandal," he said. "She never did anything wrong. She did everything by the books."

Long-time election watchdog with the Committee of Seventy, Fred Voigt, who later became a commission attorney, said Tartaglione was scrupulously fair when it came to her job.

“She was an avowed partisan,” Voigt said. "She was a ward leader and proud of it, but that never carried over into how she conducted business.”

That was hard for some losing candidates to believe. As the leader of the 62nd ward in Northeast Philadelphia, Tartaglione selected candidates for endorsement in the Democratic primary and worked to get them elected in the general election. Democrats and Republicans alike accused her of manipulating the election process. 

Brady, however, said there was never a hint of actual impropriety.

"She never got enough credit, but she was non-partisan and she was fair," he added. "She never did anything wrong. She did everything by the books."

With her shock of blond hair, cigarette-deepened voice and flair for the colorful phrase, Tartaglione was easy to caricature. Local columnist Steve Lopez dubbed her and her two good friends — the late Councilmembers Joan Krajewski and Ann Land — as the Boom-Boom Sisters. 

But they were pioneers in what had been a male-dominated world. In a way, Tartaglione paved the way for her own daughter, state Sen. Christine Tartaglione. Another daughter, Renee, is serving a seven-year term in federal prison after being convicted of skimming $2 million from an addiction and mental health nonprofit that she ran.

"My mother was a very strong yet compassionate woman. She cared deeply about her family, her community, and her city," said Christine Tartaglione in a statement. "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." 

Like just about everyone else who knew her, Brady said Tartaglione's stand-out feature was her honesty. 

"As honest as could be," Brady said. "Spoke her mind. Didn't care."

But that honesty was often brutal.

Tartaglione was elected on a ticket with Frank Rizzo as mayor, and she defended him with intense loyalty. A fellow commissioner, Eugene Maier, found her allegiance a bit unseemly for an official overseeing elections — and spoke about it with some drama at a commission meeting.

Brady recalled Maier had gone on at some length during the meeting — longer than Tartaglione had patience for.

"Marge pulled out a roll of toilet paper and handed it to him and said, 'OK, now wipe yourself,' " Brady laughed.

Tartaglione also came out of an earlier era in city politics, one where Rizzo was king. So progressives like Councilmember Bill Greenlee sometimes found themselves at odds with her, but he said she represented an important constituency.

"There should be a place in the party for a working-class person, and that's what she was," Greenlee said.

Even Maier, the target of her toilet paper joke, doesn't question Tartaglione's dedication to the party and her job. Maier became a judge and now serves on the Board of Revision of Taxes and said there are no hard feelings, though he and Tartaglione frequently sparred when they served together.

"She had very strong views and supported them. I did the same thing, which is why we had conflicts," he remembered. "She would explode and occasionally use inappropriate words. You have to bear in mind, that was a much different time than we have now."

Tartaglione lost her commission seat in 2011 as the party turned decidedly progressive, but remained the leader of 62nd ward until her death, extending her influence in Philadelphia politics into a fifth decade. 

Brady believes the party will not see another like her.

"They broke the mold," he said.