City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Lisa Deeley speak to the media on Election Day 2020

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

When Philly became the nerve center of the political universe, a spry, bespectacled 49-year-old Republican became its unlikely spokesperson.

It was a strange role for Al Schmidt. He’s the senior-most of the city’s three City Commissioners, elected officials tasked with the usually thankless job of running smooth elections in Philadelphia. He’s never been much of a household name.

But 2020 was not a usual year, and the November election thrust the longtime bureaucrat into the international spotlight — even landing him a security detail after death threats against him and his family.

“I got some just two days ago,” Schmidt said about the threats, nearly a month after the election.

Schmidt, a history buff who came to city government after seven years working in D.C. at the federal level, has been a registered Republican for decades. Some credit him as one of the few revitalizing figures in the ailing GOP in Philadelphia, where there are roughly seven registered Democrats for every Republican. He has rooted out past cases of voting fraud in the Democratic stronghold. He’s even been rumored as a candidate for statewide office.

Those party bona fides would not save Schmidt from angering some of the GOP establishment with his unwavering stance that there was zero evidence of widespread election fraud in Philadelphia this year.

“In many ways, I really wish I had a PhD in abnormal psychology rather than history,” Schmidt said, “because I don’t understand why so many people want to be lied to.”

His defense of the integrity of the Philly vote count landed him in the bullseye of the most powerful Republican in the country.

“A guy named Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia Commissioner and so-called Republican (RINO), is being used big time by the Fake News Media to explain how honest things were with respect to the Election in Philadelphia,” President Trump tweeted on Nov. 11.

Trump’s campaign surrogates also named-dropped Schmidt and his staff, like Deputy Commissioner Seth Bluestein, who was a key presence on the floor of the ballot counting site. Each mention ignited another wave of menacing and often anti-Semitic attacks, officials said. Some stalkers tracked down Schmidt and Bluestein’s personal cell phone numbers, both officials said.

In his corner, the Republican official has found goodwill from Democrats, many of whom flocked across the aisle to his defense in the wake of the president’s attacks.

“What he did was stand up for our truth and for our democracy,” said Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who represents North Philadelphia. “He shouldn’t have had to worry about the president siccing his supporters on him for simply counting the vote and reporting what the votes are.”

Meanwhile, leaders in Schmidt’s own party have remained silent.

The Philly GOP Twitter account — which helped fuel misinformation about the election, and has since been suspended — made no mention of Schmidt this entire election cycle. In the past it would often commend Schmidt for his efforts to protect the vote.

“I don’t think that Al was out to hurt anyone. I do think that him not liking the president could have clouded his judgment,” said Bill Lanzilloti, a 22-year-old Republican city ward leader. “He made it clear, he doesn’t like [Trump].”

Albert Eisenberg, an adviser to the local GOP, offered a different view on the party’s silence. “This was a complicated situation and there are a lot of people with different opinions at the table right now,” he said.

Schmidt when he ran for City Controller in 2009 Credit: Courtesy Elliot Curson

The Republican dissident in the local GOP

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Schmidt gravitated toward history in college, eventually getting his doctorate in political history outside of Boston.

He then went to Washington D.C and worked various high-security clearance roles. As an advisor on a Holocaust commission under the Bill Clinton administration, he helped track down ill-gotten Nazi assets and return them to Holocaust survivors. He worked through 9/11 and its aftermath in the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, where he audited the Department of Homeland Security and other intelligence agencies.

The watchdog work was a good fit, though Schmidt admits it doesn’t pertain much to his job now as an election official. (Save for the one time he helped audit the U.S. Postal Service. “This last year was a little bit of a flashback to that,” he said.)

He moved to Philly in 2005 when his wife landed a job at a law firm here, and he got involved in local politics almost immediately.

Becoming the city controller, Philly’s top fiscal watchdog, seemed ideal in for the wonky 30-something. Schmidt’s numbers-driven, unruffled approach won him several followers.

“He looked for data to inform his opinions on different matters,” said Donald Garecht, 41, an early supporter who later served as a deputy under Schmidt. “He was also really tough and not scared to do what was right.”

Meanwhile, Republican party leaders actively encouraged the out-of-towner not to run.

Schmidt on the campaign trail in 2011 Credit: WHYY

Schmidt pushed back against leadership, whom he viewed as content to eat the Democrats’ leftovers. During his campaign, he attacked the notorious Philadelphia Parking Authority — one of the GOP’s sole political assets, and a well for patronage jobs and government contracts. He organized efforts to recruit more committee people and ward leaders.

He lost the 2009 controller race, but kept on prodding the party, developing into the informal leadership of an insurgent Republican faction known as the Loyal Opposition.

Schmidt downplayed the coalition as less of a political wing and more of “an email list” for “people who are dissatisfied with the party and its direction,” the Inquirer reported at the time. But others credit it with pulling the party back from the brink of irrelevance in the city.

“Al is somebody who really helped save the Philadelphia Republican party,” said Dan Pearson, 31, a former staffer for Schmidt. “He was easily the most effective organizer.”

In 2011, Schmidt ran full swing for the Office of City Commissioners and unseated Joseph Duda, a 50-year player in the local party. “GOP rebel wins for commissioner,” the Inquirer headline blared.

He inherited a seat in an office undergoing a public perception crisis and facing a lack of urgency or accountability, according to former staffers.

Then-City Commissioner Anthony Clark, a Democrat, was an infamous absentee who didn’t even bother to vote in several elections. Ward leaders and political campaigns said they struggled to procure simple public data from the commissioners without an inside connection.

And the election returns website, used a million times on two nights a year, was a disaster.

Investigating fraud, boosting transparency

Schmidt’s tenure hasn’t been without criticism.

Last year, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart slammed the Republican and his Democratic colleagues over the process for awarding a $29 million contract to the city’s new fleet of voting machines, suggesting officials had not been forthright about lobbying efforts from the winning vendor. Schmidt personally visited the winning vendor years ago, but not other bidders’ headquarters, Rhyhart reported, noting that the Republican’s role was part of a larger pattern of bias in awarding the contract.

Lanzilloti, the young GOP ward leader, refuted Schmidt’s claims of full transparency this year. Poll watchers from all parties were permitted access to observe the ballot count during the entire process. Lanziolotti said it wasn’t good enough, though did not echo claims of widespread fraud.

“I’m not saying [Schmidt] did a bad job, I’m just saying I couldn’t know if he did a bad job because we couldn’t see the process,” Lanzilloti said. “That’s like me closing my eyes and you saying a pretty girl is in front of me. How could I know? It could be a horse.”

To many in Philly’s political orbit, the election fraud claims that poured in after Nov. 3 carried a heavy dose of irony.

Many Republicans, including Trump, have cited the case of Domenick J. DeMuro, a 73-year-old Democratic committeeperson who pleaded guilty earlier this year in a ballot-stuffing conspiracy that spanned two separate Philly elections over the last decade. It was Schmidt’s office that helped reveal DeMuro’s scheme by cross-referencing physical voting records in his South Philly precinct.

“We found [DeMuro] because we were diligently looking at clerk books and vote books for discrepancies,” said former staffer Pearson, adding that that degree of examination was less common before Schmidt’s tenure.

Bluestein, the deputy commissioner, said the office has referred about a dozen cases to prosecutors since his boss was seated in 2012.

Close aides praised Schmidt for his tactful handling of issues that could easily be distorted along partisan lines. In 2017, Schmidt’s office identified a statewide glitch in Pennsylvania’s electronic driver’s licensing system that mistakenly allowed more than 150 non-citizens to register to vote, some of whom had indeed gone on to do so.

Schmidt sidestepped the national GOP’s rhetoric around immigration at the time, focusing on the damage this could do to the election process — and the people mistakenly allowed to sign up.

“If you’ve registered to vote in the U.S., and you’re not a citizen, it’s potential grounds for the denial of your citizenship application,” Schmidt said at the time.

In addition to correcting the glitch at the state level, Michelle Montalvo, a longtime deputy commissioner, said “Al was writing letters on [non-citizens] behalf to not have their citizenship halted.”

Schmidt spearheaded a major website revamp shortly after taking office, and opened up public data to anyone who asked for it, regardless of political party — something Schmidt frequently reminds voters did not happen under his predecessor.

“We didn’t want to run the office like that,” said former staffer Barry Scatton about the prior practice of only giving data to allies. “We wanted to run an office that was open to any member of the public.”

Now, not only is data easily available on the website, but Schmidt makes sharing the info a personal project. He uses his social media account to release turnout numbers, maps and easy-to-read graphics that his office puts together. For the November election, the office set up a livestream of the vote count floor that attracted tens of thousands of viewers at a time.

On Monday morning, nearly a month after the election, Schmidt and the commissioners staff were breaking down the ballot counting machinery to be placed in storage until next time.

Most of the chaos has simmered down, but Schmidt remains wary about the future of the election process after seeing so much disinformation this year.

Said the Republican: “It went from ‘A whole bunch of dead people voted in Philly’ to ‘Show me proof that a whole bunch of dead people didn’t vote in Philly.’

“It’s undermining confidence in the entire process and it’s doing so with no basis in fact.”

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...