Philly’s longest serving elections official and political firebrand dies at 86

Marge Tartaglione was a legendary force in city politics.

Marge Tartaglione

Marge Tartaglione

Committee of Seventy
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Margaret Tartaglione — former Philadelphia elections czar, political pugilist and matriarch of one the city’s most infamous Democratic dynasties — has passed away, friends and colleagues confirmed. She was 86 years old.

First sworn into office in 1975, Tartaglione oversaw city elections for 36 years, the longest tenure of any commissioner since the office was formed in the 1850s. For decades she has also served as a Democratic ward leader in her native Oxford Circle neighborhood.

Former congressman and Democratic party chairman Bob Brady said Tartaglione had been on hospice care recently. But as with most everything else in her life, “Marge,” as everyone knew her, didn’t go down without a fight. Days after weathering a heart bypass in 2011, she filed paperwork to seek her tenth term in elected office.

That ferocious spirit pervaded nearly every aspect of her public and personal life.

“What you see is what you got: honest as could be, told it like it is, wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and spoke her mind many times,” Brady said. “And most of the time I agreed with her — she was right.”

Targalione’s family has its hand in politics from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. One of her daughters is Philadelphia state Sen. Tina Targalione, whose district includes parts of North Philly, the River Wards and the lower Northeast. Her other daughter is political scion Rene Tartaglione, a former deputy city commissioner who is now serving a 7-year federal prison sentence for orchestrating a money laundering scheme at a North Philly mental health clinic. Rene’s husband is Democratic ward leader and political firebrand Carlos Matos.

Drama and the Tartaglione clan are no strangers — and the grand dame’s record is legendary.

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Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus

Marge famously sparred with political enemies, reporters, and critics of her office — and no, not just figuratively. She holds the unofficial record for undefeated fistfights in Philadelphia politics.

There was that time in the 1980s she clocked former ward leader and union official Norman Loudenslager — twice — for making a remark about Tartaglione’s then 16-year-old daughter. Of equal lore in Philly politics is the time she traded blows with late City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski in a Northeast Philly restaurant.

In her sunset years in office, at age 77, Tartaglione even threatened to jump over a table and “punch out” a Philadelphia Weekly reporter who questioned her office’s integrity. This was after an ethics scandal led to the ouster of Tartaglione’s daughter Rene, who had been caught violating the city charter ban on political work for city employees.

Tartaglione received criticism for mixing politics with elections work — but by all accounts, elections were run without many hiccups under her reign. She said she once wore a wire to help the FBI nab a voting machine vendor who was trying to bribe her with a house at the Jersey shore.

Maurice Floyd recalls serving one term as city commissioner alongside Tartaglione in the 1980s. He called her a “trailblazer in her own way” who knew the election code inside and out.

Also a political consultant over the years, Floyd said she was fiercely loyal to those in her circle. Candidates were doomed in Tartaglione’s ward if they didn’t ask for her blessing in the famed basement of her Oxford Circle home.

“When you talk about politics in a smoke-filled room, that’s what it was,” Floyd recalled. Literally — Tartaglione was rarely seen without a cigarette for many years.

“If you wanted to win, you better go down to that basement.”

Sen. Tartaglione, the daughter, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon thanking friends and family for their support throughout her mother’s last days.

“My mother was a very strong yet compassionate woman,” the senator wrote. “She was a pioneer in the political realm – the first women elected to a citywide office in Philadelphia’s history. 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.”

WHYY’s Tom MacDonald contributed to this report. 

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