PUBLIC SERVANT OF THE YEAR 2018: Sen. Christine Tartaglione, Working-Class Champion

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PHILADELPHIA’S “Public Servant of the Year 2018”: State Sen. Christine Tartaglione

BY TONY WEST
To understand State Sen. Christine (“Tina”) Tartaglione, you have to understand the Tartagliones.

Her father Eugene and mother Marge started out on Frankford Avenue, in a rowhouse community where nobody had a fancy title or a lot of money. But loyalty mattered and family mattered. In 1965 they moved to Oxford Circle.

Eugene Tartaglione was “a strong, silent type,” as his daughter describes him. He owned a gas station and a bar. His crab recipe was famous. A lot of pols hung around the bar.

Marge? Well, she knew how to count. In those days, a housewife who didn’t know how to count often couldn’t put food on the table.

Eugene’s aunt recruited Marge to become a committeeperson. She took to politics like a fish to water. She could count noses. She could count votes. She could count dollars. She could sure work. And she could navigate the prickly, multiethnic, blue-collar rivalries of her part of town with stolid, hard-edged fairness. By the early 1970s, she had made something of a name for herself among grassroots politicos in North and Northeast Philadelphia.

Still, in 1975, as Sen. Tartaglione tells the story, “Mom was a nobody with three little kids.” (She ended up with five, of which Tina is the middle.)

Then, in part because of a fallout with then-City Commissioner Eugene Maier, Mayor Frank Rizzo recruited Marge Tartaglione to run for City Commissioner. And she won, the first woman ever to be elected citywide. Marge stayed on City Commission for a 40-year run, eventually becoming its chair.

“I couldn’t be more proud of what my mother accomplished,” the senator says. Commissioner Tartaglione started “sunshine meetings” in which the three City commissioners discuss and set all policies in open meetings – a practice continued to this day under Commissioners Lisa Deeley, Al Schmidt and Anthony Clark. “She was devoted to transparency,” her daughter says.

Marge also carried a reputation as a plain-spoken, tough-minded competitor who gave as good as she got. She didn’t come from a part of town where people who back down easily come out ahead.

Tina Tartaglione grew up in a political world. As a kid, she did lit drops door to door; on election day, she worked as a runner between ward headquarters (her home) and polling stations.

“I was indoctrinated early,” the senator says. “With my mother, it was all about your name and your honor. If she shook your hand, you could take it to the bank.”

Tina Goes to Work

Tartaglione graduated from Peirce Junior College maxima cum laude in 1980. She worked for Judge Joe McCabe’s office – alongside another rising star who would become Ward Leader Bob Dellavella.

In 1986, she got a constituent-service job with Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, who set a high standard for that mission. “You could just walk into her office, you never had to make an appointment,” Tartaglione notes. It was a skill set Tartaglione absorbed early. There also she developed a wealth of citywide governmental contacts that she was able to take with her later to Harrisburg.

Harrisburg beckoned in 1989, when Tartaglione landed a job with Treasurer Catherine Baker Knoll as senior executive assistant. Her main assignment was to work on the State Commission on Buildings & Grounds. The Commonwealth is, among other things, a huge landlord, with a bucket of lucrative contracts at any given time.

When she arrived in Harrisburg, selection of these contracts was outsourced to legal firms, which charged hefty fees for their services. “I looked at what they were doing and said, ‘I can do that myself,’” Tartaglione said. She introduced the first competitive-bidding process for this vital State function.

She also learned more about the rest of Pennsylvania. Real estate, after all, is everywhere.

“I traveled the state,” Tartaglione says. “I learned how to get along with people. I took my camera with me everywhere and took pictures with people.” And she learned how different rural issues can be from the urban challenges she had grown up with. It was a wisdom that would serve her well when she would return to Harrisburg in a different role later.

But politics was in her blood.

In 1992, Tartaglione ran against State Rep. John Perzel (D-Northeast), then a titan of influence far beyond city limits. “I knocked that district twice, in high heels,” she notes cheerfully. But she lost by 1,500 votes.

“Wendell Young III was the real thing,” acknowledges the senator. “I will always be grateful to him.”

After that election, Tartaglione went to work from 1992 to 1994 as a business representative for United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 1776, under the redoubtable leadership of Wendell Young III – a union in which she remains a dues-paying member.

“I’d be fielding grievances while I was going down the checkout aisle in food stores,” she says.

Local 1776 was no ordinary school for labor activism then. “He ran for president of his union at age 21 and won,” Tartaglione recounts, still amazed. “Mr. Young made sure I had to know the history of the union.”

Young led Local 1776 workers, who staffed the PLCB liquor stores, to boycott California wines in support of grape-picker organizer César Chávez. That broke the wine industry’s resistance – Pennsylvania is the largest single purchaser of wine in the nation – and won recognition for the United Farm Workers Union.

“He was the real thing,” acknowledges the senator. “I will always be grateful to him.”

Taking off Statewide

Tartaglione went with her mother to Democratic State Committee and Democratic National Committee meetings. Her work at the Treasurer’s Office had made her known around the state.

When Lt. Gov. Mark Singel became acting governor in 1993 during Gov. Bob Casey’s protracted battle with amyloidosis, Tartaglione become acting chair of State Committee. She inherited a body that was $325,000 in debt and generally in disarray.

“I bought a voter file,” she says of her work there. “I made money transparent. I was able to bring people together.”

But Tartaglione stepped down from State Committee in 2002, after Mayor Ed Rendell beat Bob Casey, Jr. for the Democratic nomination for governor, since she had backed Casey in that race.

In 1994, another elective opening loomed. State Sen. Frank Lynch was already sick when he won renomination in the 1992 primary; eager up-and-comers were already circling his seat. “I was the only one who said, ‘Don’t run against him,” Tartaglione puts it.

Lynch died in 1993. In a special election, Democrat Bill Stinson was elected to fill his shoes. But a federal judge ordered him unseated for election fraud and declared Republican Bruce Marks the winner.

WHEN SCHOOL started on Aug. 27, these youngsters were all ready to carry their textbooks in style, thanks to State Sen. Christine Tartaglione, who arranged a bookbag giveaway at Fairhill Park. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Tartaglione had no qualms in 1994. She beat Harvey Rice in the primary and defeated Marks in the 1994 general, in a race that cost $750,000 – big money for a senatorial contest in those days. In doing so, she became only the fifth woman in state history to win election to the State Senate. 1994 was the year of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” that unleashed what we would now call a “red wave” across the land. Tartaglione was one of only two Democratic challengers to unseat a Republican State senator that year.

In the Senate, Tartaglione started out on the Aging & Youth Committee. Two years later, she became Democratic chair of the Labor & Industry Committee, a position she has held to this day. She also serves on the Law & Justice Committee.

In 2010, she became the first woman elected to Senate Democratic Leadership when she was chosen Caucus Secretary. Now in her sixth term, she is Democratic Chair of the Labor and Industry Committee, and serves on the Law & Justice Committee, Appropriations Committee, Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, Banking & Insurance Committee, Intergovernmental Operations Committee and Democratic Policy Committee.

Tartaglione has broad experience with the workings of the Senate.

Labor’s Guardian in Harrisburg

Tartaglione is known as a bulldog for the causes of organized labor.

Tartaglione authored Pennsylvania’s landmark 2006 minimum wage increase, from $5.15 to $7.15. “It was extremely hard,” she recalls. “It was the first bill I ever negotiated by myself.”

This year, she is pleased that Gov. Tom Wolf has called for a $15/hour minimum wage.

Widely known as the Senate’s leading advocate for workers and their families, she has written and ushered through the legislature laws protecting health-care employees from the dangerous practice of mandatory overtime, preventing attacks on public transit workers and establishing the “Pennsylvania Center for Health Careers.”

A WHO’S WHO of Democratic Party leaders joined labor and union officials to endorse State Sen. Tina Tartaglione at her 2014 re-election kickoff held at Cancer Treatment Center in N.E. Philadelphia, one of Tartaglione’s beneficiaries. She was unopposed in 2018.

“I have held the line against right to work, against attacks on prevailing-wage policies and on paycheck protection.” After Republican Tom Corbett succeeded Rendell as governor at the height of the Tea Party movement, she boasts, “He didn’t get anything through my committee.”

Tartaglione can get away with being feisty because she can also be warm-hearted. “I’m good at relationships with the other side,” she states. She cites an occasion when she invited her colleague Chuck McIlHinney, a Bucks County Republican, to dinner with 10 other Republicans. “There was no ulterior motive,” she says. “I just told them, ‘Loosen your ties, there’s no agenda here, just getting to know each other.’”

As a result, she avers, “A lot of my legislative work doesn’t have my name on it.” But for a senator in the minority – most of all when facing the current Republican supermajority – she must know how to bury her ego in order to win an accomplishment.

The Total-Body Experience

In 2003 came the accident that changed her life.

Tooling around on the bay at the shore, her boat was hit by a big wake that knocked her over, flying up in the air and bouncing on the deck in a way that took a chunk out of her spine. She would not walk unaided again.

“At first I was angry,” she relates. “Then I was full of self-pity. Eventually, though, I said to myself, ‘Let’s get real.’ God wanted me to become an advocate for the disabled.”

First, the senator threw herself first into her own rehabilitation efforts – efforts that will last a lifetime.

“I haven’t given up,” she asserts. “I will never surrender to this wheelchair.”

In recent years, working with the Moss Rehab Center, she has pioneered the use of ReWalk, a bionic walking assistance system that uses powered leg attachments to enable paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs. She demonstrated its use on Capitol Hill to applause from the Senate chamber.

PRACTISING on ReWalk, a bionic exoskeleton, State Sen. Tina Tartaglione steps out at Moss Rehab Center.

In everyday life she maneuvers well, boasting that she drives her own van. She religiously maintains a program of physical therapy two days a week to stay in shape.

“I am a self-reliant individual,” she says. “I am unstoppable.”

She didn’t stop with her own needs. In the 15 years since her accident, Tartaglione has taken a host of medical issues under her wing.

“Gov. Rendell created the State Office for People with Disabilities for me,” Tartaglione states with pride. She pressed for programs to fund guide dogs and expand vocational training for disabled Pennsylvanians. She recently passed a bill allocating $1 million for spinal-cord injury research.

She worked closely with State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) to develop the controversial legalization of medical marijuana. Tartaglione was touched by the plight of mothers whose children suffered from conditions like severe epilepsy, which can be relieved by cannabis. “I talked with a mother who lost her baby because of it,” the senator relates. “It tore me up.”

There isn’t a medical institution serving her community that she has not worked the resources of the Commonwealth to help.

She got a $1 million grant for St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and for its associated Ronald McDonald House. She recently landed $500,000 for the Fox Chase Cancer Center. Maria de los Santos Health Center got $1 million over a three-year period. Einstein Hospital and Moss Rehab Center have also benefited from her lobbying. A Cancer Treatment Centers of America expansion into her district has already added 153 jobs, she says; ultimately this number may go up to 2,000.

Opioid addiction is a statewide problem that has hurt her low-income inner-city communities of Kensington and the Lower Northeast especially hard. Tartaglione worked to fund a 20-year research project on opioids and to help Temple University Hospital launch a mobile suboxone unit that will bring medical staff and counseling to the community to help those who are addicted before they end up in an emergency room due to an overdose.

But much more than spot intervention is needed, Tartaglione insists. As a model, she points to the Self Help Movement, a residential program for men with addiction disorders that her old friend Dellavella plays a role in. It is a short- and long-term, medication-free program that focuses on a holistic understanding of each person’s life that can redirect a wounded life toward new horizons.

In her impoverished district, Tartaglione reports that domestic violence is a widespread tragedy. “I do a lot of work on this in my district office,” she reports. The immediate need is to scramble for alternative placement for women who fear for their lives but have few resources.

Recently she participated in a vigil for domestic violence in Harrisburg. “I had to read the names of people who were killed,” she recalls. “It was devastating.”

Abuse in any form riles her up. Although she comes from a faithful Catholic family, she pressed in the Senate for the “two-year window” in the statute of limitations that would have permitted the prosecution of priests charged with long-ago sexual abuse.

Politics Can Make a Lively Party

Vibrant participation in party politics is second nature to Tartaglione. It’s her calling – but also her hobby.

She recounts with a thrill how, when she wound up flying in the same plane with President Bill Clinton in 1994, she wanted to take a memento home with her but she didn’t have anything conventional for the president to write on. “So he signed my shirt!” she exclaims. “I still have it somewhere.”

“Bill Clinton signed my shirt!” Tina said with pride. “I still have it somewhere.”

At the 2000 Democratic National Convention, she got to know Vice President Al Gore – “he’s got a good sense of humor.” One of the proudest moments of her life was when her mother was president of the Pennsylvania Electoral College that year, casting the state’s votes for Gore (in vain, it turned out).

In Harrisburg, Tartaglione is far more than a tourist. Come January, beginning her sixth term in office, she will lead the Philadelphia Caucus – and perhaps a new Southeastern Caucus – in handsomely expanded seating on the Senate floor, as Democrats have added five new members, ending the Republican supermajority.

Sen. Tartaglione was elected vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Party in June 1995 and served as chair from June 1998 to June 2002 where she continued to advance the Democratic agenda in the state. In that capacity, she led the Pennsylvania Delegation at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and served as President of the 54th Electoral College in December of 2000.

Then there’s grassroots politics, the stuff Tartaglione grew up in. Ward politics in Kensington and the Lower Northeast can be folksy, even boisterous at times.

Her mother Marge is also the Democratic leader of the 62nd Ward and holds ward meetings in her basement. “If a candidate came to be interviewed by the committee, he would have to either sing or play an instrument,” Tina recalls fondly.

The senator recalls the time her mother met Carlos Matos, now Democratic leader of the 19th Ward, along with other local leaders. A dispute erupted.

“My mom grabbed Carlos in a headlock and threw him out of her basement,” Tartaglione tells the story with a laugh.

Matos wound up marrying Marge’s daughter and Tina’s sister, Renee. “My mom just loves him today!” she notes.

Today, Tartaglione stays in close touch with all her ward leaders. With each new session, she develops an idea of how many Commonwealth dollars she can tap for hometown causes. “I go to every single one of them and ask them where they want it to go,” she explains.

On this year’s menu: Juniata Boys & Girls Club, the Frankford Chargers, Fox Rock Baseball, the Oxford Circle Raiders, Lawncrest Civic Association, Mayfair CDC and Port Richmond CDC.

Honors Piled upon Honors

Tartaglione has been awarded the prestigious “John F. Kennedy Memorial Award” by the Kennedy Foundation for her tireless support of mental health/mental disability programs. In 2012, she was named Legislator of the Year by Pennsylvania Industries for the Blind/Handicapped. Both the Retired Police, Firemen &Prison Guard Association of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety & Health named her “Woman of the Year,” and she was awarded the Firefighters Friend Award by the Philadelphia Firefighters Union Local 22.

TALKING with a young constituent in Norris Square, State Sen. Tina Tartaglione is a legislative leader in causes that matter to working-class women and children in her district.

Tartaglione has received the “Jo Cooper Foundation for Family Unity” award from Congregation Beth Solomon Synagogue and Community Center; “Profile In Courage” award from the Women Making a Difference, Inc.; the “Rosa Parks” award presented by Hon. Louise Bishop, the “Tuttleman Award for Excellence in Healthcare;” the “Magee Leadership” award; the United Food & Commercial Workers Minority Coalition’s “Legislator of the Year Award”; the Philadelphia Veterans Multi Service & Education Center and Organized Labor Supports America’s Veteran’s “2005 Public Service Award”; the Service Employees International Union’s “Thomas F. Zuber Award for Patient Safety”; the “John O’Donnell Friend of Frankford Boys Club Award”; the “Columbus Civic Association Achievement Award”; the “Working Woman of the Year Award” by the Coalition of Labor Union Women; and the “Achievement Award” from the Concerned Black Leaders of Lower Tioga-Hunting Park. She has also been recognized for her outstanding and continuing support by the 2nd Police District Advisory Council and the Juniata Boys & Girls Club.

She is cited in the “Italian Americans of the Twentieth Century” and is a member of the Ecumenical Hospitaller Order of St. John Knights of Malta for her work as a political and community leader.

The senator still lives in her family home with her mother. In one sense, she’s come a long way for a rowhouse girl from Oxford Circle; but in many important ways, she never left it at all. And her community is better off for that.

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