Mayor Jim Kenney has nominated Seth Bluestein, a longtime aide to departing City Commissioner Al Schmidt, to fill Schmidt’s vacancy on the board that runs Philadelphia’s elections.
Bluestein, a Republican who has worked in Schmidt’s office for nearly a decade, most recently as chief deputy commissioner, will become a city commissioner, earning $136,083 a year if City Council approves the nomination, as expected.
Kenney said it was critical to choose someone with experience headed into the closely watched 2022 midterms.
“It’s crucial that the person taking on this role in this challenging national environment has the experience and integrity to stand up for all Philadelphians — no matter which party or candidates they vote for,” Kenney said in a statement. “I’m confident that Seth will continue to demonstrate the character, experience, and expertise needed to help effectively and efficiently administer Philadelphia’s elections.”
Bluestein, 32, told the Inquirer that 2020 was prime training ground for what lies ahead.
“Having gone through 2020 with Al and being in the thick of it, I know what to expect,” he said. “I think it just speaks to the importance of having someone in this role with the right experience running elections who can speak to all the possible concerns that people have.”
A lifelong Philadelphian, Bluestein is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a masters in public administration from the Fels Institute of Government.
Lisa Deeley, the Democratic chair of the board, also threw her support behind Bluestein’s nomination. “The job of commissioner is not about left vs. right; it is about competence and commitment to democracy,” she said in a statement.
Schmidt, the lone Republican on the three-person election board, announced that he would resign in January to take over as the next president and CEO of the good government watchdog group the Committee of Seventy. He is in the middle of his third term.
He and Bluestein endured abuse as they defended the integrity of Philadelphia’s 2020 presidential vote. Schmidt received death threats. Bluestein was criticized by name by an attorney for former President Donald Trump at a news conference the day after the election.
Bluestein said Wednesday he’d talked to Schmidt about staying focused in those moments of stress.
“Our mantra is just ... to make sure elections are not just run fairly and securely but making sure they’re as accessible as possible so every registered voter has the right to make their voice heard,” he said.
The seat must be filled by someone from the minority party; registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 7-1 margin in Philadelphia.
The head of the Working Families Party, Nicolas O’Rourke, had said he hoped someone from his party would be appointed. Another progressive organization, Make the Road Action, joined the Working Families Party in challenging Bluestein’s nomination.
”As Republicans continue to mount attacks on the voting rights of Black and brown folks and attempt to undermine fair elections, Mayor Kenney must consider if it’s in the best interest of Philadelphians to put a Republican in this position, and make our city’s election protection board more vulnerable to continued pressure from authoritarians and extremists seeking to subvert democratic process for their own political agenda,” its Pennsylvania political director, Diana Robinson, said in a statement Wednesday.
If his appointment is approved by Council, Bluestein would serve a term that would end in 2023. He said Wednesday he hasn’t decided whether he’d then run for a full term.
“Right now I’m just gonna focus on doing a good job as commissioner and making sure the upcoming midterm federal elections are run well and fairly and securely,” he said. “I’ll take a look at that at the appropriate time.”
Schmidt praised the choice.
“Without a doubt, Mayor Kenney nominated the best person to fill my vacancy,” he wrote in a text message. “Seth’s experience, work ethic and integrity are unmatched. It’s the right decision for Philadelphia’s voters.”