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How a blue-collar Kensington kid became Trump’s field general of voter suppression

I bet you think by now you’ve heard everything about the never-ending 2020 presidential race. But you probably didn’t know this: The first shots in the current battle over who votes in America — and, more importantly, who doesn’t — were fired in the rowhouse wards of Philadelphia’s Lower Northeast back in 1993, in a local election that changed the life of a 20-something college dropout from Kensington in a way that would change U.S. politics, for better or worse.

The man was named Mike Roman, and he’d signed up to work in a special election for Pennsylvania state senate 27 years ago that became front-page news when the seeming loser by 562 votes on Election Night, Republican lawyer Bruce Marks, claimed fraud over a flood of Democratic absentee ballots. Aided by aggressive (and controversial) reporting by The Inquirer, Marks convinced a federal judge that so many ballots from heavily Hispanic blocks had forgeries or other irregularities that — believed to be the first time in American history — he overturned the result and sent the Republican to Harrisburg.

It was a reversal of fortune not just for Marks but the young Roman, who has since devoted his life to claiming widespread voting fraud by Democrats and forged a wildly successful career out of that, rising in politics to six-figure paychecks and a job in Donald Trump’s White House. In 2020, the little-known Roman is nationwide head of Election Day operations for Trump’s re-election campaign — the field general of a so-called “Army for Trump” that openly aims to retain the presidency with the Bruce Marks 1993 playbook, to make allegations of widespread fraud and convince favorable judges to declare Trump the winner, regardless of the initial vote count.

But who is this guy, Mike Roman?

Despite his ever-growing importance in Trumpworld, Roman is rarely on camera or even photographed and does a lot of his talking through his Twitter feed, where some of his more recent fraud claims, like saying Philadelphia officials were illegally blocking his “observers” from satellite polling stations, haven’t panned out. A Trump campaign spokeswoman said Roman was too busy for a phone interview but might respond to email questions. (He hasn’t yet.) I did speak to Marks, his mentor and friend, on Monday.

“Mike is not a country club Republican. He’s a working-class kid from a neighborhood in Kensington,” said Marks. He said Roman — of Ukrainian descent, who grew up as the blue-collar setting that the late Peter Binzen famously dubbed in a 1971 book “Whitetown, U.S.A.” became more racially diverse — has “street smarts” that aided his career as a fraud hunter. In 1993, Marks said, Roman “saw what really happens on Election Day.”

At the time, according to Marks, Roman had dropped out of the University of Miami for financial reasons. But after that 1993 race, he rose steadily in politics — moving to Rhawnhurst and becoming GOP ward leader in the early 2000s, working in Harrisburg and on campaigns like Rudy Giuliani’s 2004 presidential bid. But his career really turned on Philadelphia’s next nationally famous Election Day dust-up — the controversial 2008 appearance of two New Black Panthers, one with a billy club, at a city polling station.

It was Roman who publicized the allegation of intimidation on his website called Election Journal and shopped a video to Fox News, which ran dozens of stories on the case after the election of Barack Obama. (The Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists the New Black Panther Party as “a hate group,” also said the incident hyped by Roman and Fox News was “a tempest in a teapot.”) The working-class kid from Kensington was going national.

In the 2010s, Roman wrote frequently on alleged election fraud for the right-wing, often race-baiting website Breitbart News, and landed lucrative work as a consultant and a $269,000-a-year gig as head of research for Freedom Partners, funded by the right-wing Koch Brothers. He worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign (as did Marks) and got an $115,000 job working for then-White House counsel Don McGahn, where Politico reported “few people in or close to the White House have any idea what Michael Roman does all day.”

His finances are his opaque as much of his work. His federal financial disclosure form when he joined the Trump administration lists more than a half million in 2016 income yet only a bank account with less than $15,000 as an asset. Public records reviewed for this piece include several financial red flags about Roman and his wife Adrienne McAllister, including a 2019 foreclosure action on their Philadelphia mortgage after missed payments on an unpaid balance of more than $191,000, and a pending sheriff’s sale. (If Roman responds to my emailed question about this, I’ll publish his answer in a future newsletter.)

Of course, Roman probably has been too busy to look at his bankbook lately. As Trump’s Election Day chief, he’s already assembled a massive team of volunteers — 50,000, they claim — to “observe” selected polling places, an operation similar to what the national GOP agreed in a now-defunct settlement to stop doing for nearly 40 years after claims of voter intimidation in Black and brown neighborhoods.

On Twitter, he’s amped up his claims of Democratic plots to steal the 2020 election, especially in his hometown. After a reported theft of high-tech equipment from Philadelphia’s election warehouse, Roman tweeted, “How can we trust the results now?” — although an investigation found the break-in wasn’t political. Whatever happened in the streets of Kensington in 1993 (still a topic of debate, a generation later), critics say that since then many of his claims of voter fraud have been overhyped or just wrong. The Huffington Post wrote in 2015 that Roman “purported to hunt down the many instances of voter fraud that keep not happening.”

That hasn’t stopped Roman from doubling down, in the role of a lifetime. In June, Roman and Marks wrote in a joint blog post of a Democratic plot to use the pandemic to “open the doors of voters to allow ballot harvesting to steal the presidential election in the guise of increased participation.” But Roman’s proposed remedy, those 50,000 “observers” potentially flooding non-white neighborhoods, and a growing “Army for Trump” that could lead to mayhem or even violence at polling places, reeks of the worst forms of authoritarian voter suppression. Somehow, a rags-to-(maybe)-riches story of a guy from the Lower Northeast has become dangerously intertwined with the fate of American democracy, which is hanging by a thread.



History lesson

Trayvon Martin attended high school in Miami-Dade County before he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.
Miami Herald / MCT
Trayvon Martin attended high school in Miami-Dade County before he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.

There are no accidents in politics. It wasn’t an accident 40 years ago when Ronald Reagan kicked off his fall campaign for the White House with a rally at a county fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, just a stone’s throw from where the KKK killed three civil rights workers in 1964, and played the segregationist dog whistle of “states’ rights.” Nor was it an accident when a desperate and dangerous Donald Trump, fresh from his sick bed, relaunched his flagging campaign in Sanford, Florida — the community where a vigilante killed the unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012, the racist spark that many credit with the later launching of Black Lives Matter.

Not talking about Trayvon, of course, was part of the freight-train whistle blared by the president Monday night. Instead, his potentially COVID-spreading rally was another black mark on a town with an already dark history. Sanford is a place where its founder, Henry Shelton Sanford, couldn’t hire Blacks for his orange grove in 1870 because that angered whites in a state with a ridiculously high number of lynchings, where baseball icon Jackie Robinson was chased out of town in 1946 for trying to integrate spring training, and where five years later the husband-and-wife head of the local NAACP chapter were killed in a firebombing. A true American leader would acknowledge Sanford’s past, and how to fix a legacy of deep structural racism. We owe it to Trayvon’s memory to dispose of a president whose power comes instead from enshrining that legacy.

Inquirer reading list

  • In my Sunday column, I looked more broadly at the issue where Mike Roman finds himself on the front lines: Voter suppression in the 2020 election. I reviewed a bombshell report that Team Trump singled out Black would-be voters for “deterrence” in 2016, and how much worse it could be this time around.
  • Meanwhile, Trump’s COVID-19 antics continue to distract from the real problems, including the 11 million Americans who are still without a job seven months into this virus-sparked recession. Even more worrisome, I wrote, is the staggering toll on the working class as work-from-home elites are spared.
  • OK, you probably won’t be gobsmacked to learn that the Inquirer Editorial Board — like most major newspapers both in 2020 and 2016 — rejected Trump this weekend with a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden for president. But the piece really lays out an alarming picture of what could happen to America as well as Pennsylvania in a second Trump term. You can endorse The Inquirer in its ambition for a better commonwealth and a better nation — by subscribing.