Democratic Governor-elect Josh Shapiro on Thursday morning announced his first cabinet appointment — and it’s a Republican from Philadelphia.
Former City Commissioner Al Schmidt is Shapiro’s pick to head the Department of State, the agency that oversees statewide election administration, professional licensing, and charity and business filings.
He’ll need two-thirds confirmation from the Republican-controlled Pa. Senate to assume the post. When that might happen is still up in the air.
Schmidt became known on the national stage in 2020 as an outspoken and oft-quoted defender of Philly elections in the face of unproven accusations of voter fraud. His statements prompted then-President Trump to tweet that Schmidt was a “so-called Republican” being “used big time by the Fake News Media.”
But before all that went down, Schmidt had a decade and a half of experience in Philadelphia politics and government. He started with a local Republican party position, then became known as something of a GOP rebel as he ran for and won elected office.
Here’s what to know about Shapiro’s cross-party pick, who spent the last year as CEO of local good government group Committee of Seventy, and is one of President Biden’s selections to receive one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.
He’s originally from Pittsburgh
Schmidt is best known for his time in the Philadelphia City Commissioners Office, where he served from 2012-2021. But he knows the other side of the commonwealth pretty well too, since he was born and raised in Pittsburgh and got his undergrad degree at Allegheny College. Schmidt moved to Philly in 2005 when his wife, who grew up in Northeast Philly, got a job at a city law firm.
He spent his early career working in DC
Before Schmidt moved to Philadelphia, he worked in Congress’s Government Accountability Office as a senior analyst, per his Committee of Seventy bio. He also used to be a policy analyst for the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets under the Clinton administration.
He ran for city controller in 2009 (and lost)
Schmidt’s first foray into running for elected office came when he challenged former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a Democratic incumbent, even though Republican Party leadership reportedly asked him not to. During the race, Schmidt went after his opponent for not auditing city agencies on a regular basis and being too soft on the PPA. He ended up losing the race by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Some credit him with reviving the Philly GOP — but party leadership didn’t like him
Schmidt was once executive director of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, but he left the position when he decided to run for controller. He later took a job with the Pennsylvania GOP, recruiting committeepeople in Philly neighborhoods where Republicans didn’t yet have a big presence.
He led an informal insurgent faction some called the “Loyal Opposition,” which pushed back against what he believed was ineffective Republican party leadership at the city level. One of Schmidt’s former staffers told Billy Penn in 2020 that Schmidt “really helped save the Philadelphia Republican party” with his efforts.
His commissioner campaign was centered around reform
Two years after losing the controller’s race, Schmidt’s first campaign for commissioner in 2011 was similarly focused on transparency and efficiency issues. He was elected alongside Democrat Stephanie Singer, who also ran on a platform focused on bringing change.
Once in office, Schmidt and his fellow commissioners — who didn’t always get along — spent their first few months investigating past voting irregularities, opening up applications for temporary election jobs to the public, and updating the commissioners’ website with more useful info.
He spent 10 years on the PPA board of directors
Gov. Tom Corbett offered Schmidt a position on the Republican-heavy board of the ~much-beloved~ Philadelphia Parking Authority in 2012. Schmidt served on the board until his term expired last year.
He got death threats for defending Philly’s election integrity
Philly was at the center of 2020’s election-mania, as former President Trump and his allies — without evidence — pointed to the city as a place where “bad things” (i.e. voter fraud) happen.
Schmidt, the only Republican among the city’s three city commissioners (the elected officials who run elections in Philly), publicly repudiated that. He debunked myths of fraud on national news, and declared the 2020 election “the most transparent and secure … in the history of Philadelphia.”
Schmidt told Philly Mag in January 2021 that he got “implied death threats” during the 2020 election cycle. And after Trump went on to mention him by name on Twitter, the threats “became very specific, involving my children by name, their ages, and what these monsters said they intended to do to them,” Schmidt said — and his children ended up needing a security detail.
He testified at Congress’s Jan. 6 hearings
In June, Schmidt detailed some of the death threats he and his family received to the U.S. House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack. During his testimony, he also debunked allegations by Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s former attorneys, that 8,000 dead people had voted in Pennsylvania in the November 2020 election.
He’s been running a good government nonprofit
Although he had two years left in his term, Schmidt resigned from his position as commissioner in November 2021 to take over as president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that was founded in the early 1900s to root out local government corruption.
These days, the organization focuses on democracy, fair elections, and good government overall. (Interestingly enough, the Committee of Seventy advocated for abolishing the city commissioners’ positions and replacing them with appointed officials. That happened about 6 years before Schmidt took over the nonprofit.)
President Biden is awarding him the Presidential Citizens Medal
Schmidt is one of a dozen awardees receiving one of the country’s highest civilian awards on the second anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He’ll be honored alongside other election officials, as well as some of the law enforcement officers who served at the capitol on Jan. 6.