Ken Smukler outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia in 2019

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Democratic leaders in Philadelphia have been meeting in recent weeks to discuss their get-out-the-vote strategy ahead of the November election. The stakes are high as the party rallies to give presidential candidate Joe Biden an edge in battleground Pennsylvania.

That’s why some attendees were surprised to see Ken Smukler, a felon convicted of election law crimes, among the attendees at a recent Zoom call with Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady and dozens of ward leaders.

Last time the public heard from Smukler — a veteran political operative and longtime campaign strategist for Brady — he was embarking on an 18-month federal prison sentence for his role in a $90,000 payoff scheme with Brady’s former congressional opponent, among other campaign finance law violations.

Smukler was released from federal lockup in April after a year behind bars, and remains under court supervision while he appeals his conviction.

So…back to the political fray?

On the sidelines, at least.

Brady said no members of the Biden campaign were involved in the call, and a Biden campaign official said it has not met with Smukler. “We are not working with him,” the official said.

The Democratic boss said he wasn’t aware his longtime political guru attended any calls with party officials, but said Smukler helped him connect with vendors to supply voter outreach software that party officials can use from their mobile devices. He is not on the party’s payroll, Brady said.

Reached by phone, Smukler confirmed he did attend one virtual call to hear Brady give a 30-minute presentation about the software.

“I set up the congressman up with the technology vendors that put together this vote-by-mail contact program,” Smukler said. “I was more a conduit to the technology.”

Were it not for his conviction last year, he might have been a sought-out strategist for the 2020 election. A Penn grad turned lawyer, Smukler left his legal practice in 1987 to run communications for former Mayor Wilson Goode’s reelection bid, and over the next three decades rose through the ranks to become one of the state’s better-known political consultants, running election service companies and helping dozens of Democrats secure higher office.

Good news for Smukler: Philadelphia politics offers endless grace for the convicted. Droves of pols before him have served time and found a second chance in the city’s political circles.

In the meantime, Smukler is fighting to get his conviction thrown out.

In late 2018, a federal jury found him guilty on nine counts of campaign law violations for his part in a scheme involving for unlawful contributions and falsifying finance reports for candidates in two congressional races.

The jury concluded that, in 2012, Smukler helped engineer a $90,000 payoff that caused Brady’s then-congressional opponent to abruptly withdraw from the race. Three others were convicted for their involvement in that scheme — though Brady himself was not charged.

The jury also convicted Smukler of campaign finance violations stemming from former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies’ unsuccessful 2014 run for Congress.

“What [Smukler] did in this case really subverts the election process,” U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois said at his sentencing last year.

Brady, who has served as chairman of the Democratic party for more than three decades, did not seek re-election to Congress after the federal investigation burst into public sight in 2017. His attorneys claimed the payment was a lawful contribution for polling data.

In a pending appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Smukler argues the “evidence was insufficient” to prove he “willfully” violated federal election law, as required by the court’s standards for these crimes. Oral arguments took place via video conference in June but the appellate court has yet to make a ruling, according to court filings.

At sentencing, Smukler said the federal case cost him his home, his life savings and his ability to secure work. Said the consultant at the time: “I’m toxic in the political consulting business, the only profession I have ever known.”


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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...