To hear Ken Smukler tell it, his three-decade career in politics started with a conversation overheard in a bar.
Smukler was bored with his job as a municipal lawyer in Philadelphia in 1987 when he heard Larry Ceisler, who went on to run his own public relations firm, talking at Carolina's, at the time a popular pub near Rittenhouse Square. Ceisler was talking about landing a job with then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.'s reelection campaign.
Smukler told the Daily News in 2012 that it was "like a lightbulb went off." He would leave behind the law books to take a job as press secretary for Goode's successful bid for a second term.
He managed Marjorie Margolies' successful bid for the U.S. House in 1992 and her failed bid to retake that seat in 2014. He has also worked for former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane.
But he is best known for his role as chief political aide to U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, the veteran political warrior who has been chairman of the Democratic City Committee since 1986.
Smukler, 57, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a law degree from Dickinson, lives in Villanova with his wife and three teen daughters. Over three decades, he has built a career as a freelance political entrepreneur, mixing street savvy and a sophisticated grasp of electoral data with media flair.
He's extroverted, almost garrulous, with a love for the game that has at times landed him amid controversies. "He's always got some new great idea," a colleague said. "And it was always more the thrill of the chase than anything else."
Marc Stier, 62, who directs a nonprofit that studies Pennsylvania budget issues, hired Smukler as a consultant when he unsuccessfully ran in 2007 for city councilman at large.
Stier said Smukler has worked for other "progressive Democrats" and "does it cheap." He added: "I'm very sorry to see him in legal trouble."
When Kane was trapped by her own mistakes, cornered by prosecutors and increasingly politically isolated, she turned to Smukler for advice. Through advocacy and selective leaks, Smukler helped turn the narrative around for a time — selling Kane as the victim of a male, porn-obsessed establishment. In the end, Kane was convicted of perjury and forced to resign.
The 2014 Margolies campaign drew negative headlines after one of her opponents filed a complaint alleging she had illegally mixed primary and general election funds. During that race, the Inquirer reported that most of her campaign money was going to political consultants, including Smukler.
As federal election officials investigated the complaint, Margolies' campaign argued that it had paid Smukler early as an advance to secure his work in the general election campaign – but with the understanding that Smukler would refund the payments if she lost the primary. Smukler did end up refunding just under $229,000. Later, authorities dismissed the complaint.
Smukler has also earned money through his relationship with the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office, exploiting the legal requirement that the office buy advertisements about properties available in foreclosures. In 2011, Smukler founded Liberty City Press, a website and newspaper, as a vehicle for these lucrative ads. Its most recent issue included four pages of stories and eight pages of sheriff's notices.
The print publication is packaged as a insert with others such as the Philadelphia Gay News, the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, Al Día, and the Metro Chinese Weekly. Officials say they want to inform a more diverse audience about coming sheriff's sales.
Smukler also formed a casino trade group nearly a decade ago that came under legislative scrutiny for whether it was actively lobbying for the industry without registering as a lobbyist. The group, the Pennsylvania Casino Association, represented SugarHouse in Philadelphia, Mount Airy Casino in the Poconos, and Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh.
Smukler's ventures have been eclectic. Recently, he was part of at least one group that vied unsuccessfully for a coveted medical-marijuana growing license this year for a facility in Erie.
On the political front, one firm Smukler founded, VoterLink Data Services, set up "hotlines" during the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, working with media outlets like NBC and CNN to give voters information on where to cast their ballots and how to report Election Day problems.
He also provided advice on election hotlines during the 2016 presidential election for The Tom Joyner Morning Show, which pitches itself as the "nation's No. 1 urban morning show" on radio. For that show, Smukler also produced "The Smuk Report," in which he provided a snarky take on politics.
More recently, Smukler has been promoting a new company, called VoteCastr, to publicize projections of the outcome of presidential and Senate races in key states before the polls close. This challenges the convention under which news organizations have refrained from projecting outcomes so early, so as not to discourage voters.
Critics said the business would undermine democracy, but Smukler said it would strike a blow against the "media cartel."