Lt. Gov. Michael Stack has Harrisburg all aflutter over allegations that he and his wife, Tonya, verbally abused their staff, including the state police charged with guarding the couple.
Read details of Stack’s shenanigans – yelling at the help, demanding they turn the siren and red lights on their car on so they can skirt through traffic, etc. – and the phrase “what a jerk!” comes to mind.
When considering his behavior, though, it is important to know that Stack is not a conventional politician; he is a prince of Pennsylvania.
He is an heir of the House of Stack, one of the family dynasties that have helped rule Philadelphia for decades, deeply embedded into the city’s political culture. Their duchy is centered in the 58th Ward of Northeast Philadelphia, which Stack heads.
Stack’s grandfather, Michael the First, was a Democratic congressman. His father, Michael the Second, was a lawyer and party power broker and, needless to say, leader of the 58th Ward. His mother, Fay Stack, was a member of the city’s school board and later a judge.
Some of the princes in ruling families are quite talented; others are less so. Michael the Third falls into the latter category. He was in the state Senate for 15 years without earning marks, except for attendance. But, he looks good – lean, with a carefully trimmed head of hair and a million-dollar smile. From a hereditary standpoint, he is perfectly suited for the job of lieutenant governor, a decorative position with little power. So, can you blame him for a sense of entitlement?
Just like the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns, the power of the city’s dynasties has declined in tandem with the power of the Democratic organization. The least they can do – and sometimes the most they can do – is to hand their seats down to their children.
What other houses are there? To name a few, there is a House of Cohen, founded by Councilman David Cohen. He and his wife and longtime assistant, Florence, begat Mark Cohen, who was elected to the state House. Another son sat on Common Pleas Court. A daughter, Sherrie, ran several times for Council after her father died, but never quite made it – a chink in the chain of primogeniture
There is a House of Tartaglione, headed by matriarch Marge, still leader of the 62nd Ward and a former City Commissioner. She begat Tina Tartaglione, who was elected to the state Senate, and Renee, whose morganatic marriage to Carlos Matos, leader of the 19th Ward, gave the House of Tartaglione entrée to the city’s Latino community.
In South Philadelphia, Register of Wills Ron Donatucci serves as leader of the 26th Ward. Before that, he served in the State House, but upon his election as Register of Wills, he bequeathed his House seat to his younger brother, Robert. When Robert died in 2001, his seat was taken by his widow, Marie.
Edgar Campbell preceded Donatucci as Register of Wills (we’ll try to explain some other time what that office does). He begat Carol Campbell, who served as leader of West Philadelphia’s Fourth Ward until her death. She was succeeded in the ward job by her brother, Edgar “Sonny” Campbell.
We have Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia, and his son, former Councilman Wilson Goode Jr; we have the late state Sen. Hardy Williams, who bequeathed his seat to his son, Anthony Hardy Williams.
We have former Mayor John Street, who begat state Sen. Sharif Street. We have U.S. Rep. William Green, Jr. who died and begat his seat to his son, William the Third, who later became mayor. In turn, his son, William the Fourth, was elected to council and later was named to the School Reform Commission.
We could go on, but we’ll end it here. And I won’t get into the legions of others sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, wives and mistresses whose entry into government is based primarily on consanguinity, a principle governed by something one politician once said to me: “If you can’t help your own, who can you help?”
There are some conventional ways to deal with this, such as forbidding nepotism by public officials (unlikely to ever happen) or electing childless pols – though they are likely to have a wanting brother somewhere. How about free vasectomies for all newly elected office holders?
In the end, it’s up to voters to just say no to this perverse exercise in primogeniture for public office. Folks, remember: We rebelled against hereditary rule in 1776. Why is it OK today?