As political obituaries go, Al Schmidt thinks his is premature.
The three-term Philadelphia city commissioner has decided not to seek reelection in 2023. But Schmidt, the only Republican on the three-member board that oversees elections in the city, isn’t ruling out a future in public life.
Schmidt, 49, said Monday that relentless false claims about election fraud from President Donald Trump and his supporters did not motivate his decision, which he first mulled while seeking a new four-year term in 2019. This despite the fact that Philadelphia police detectives still provide security for Schmidt when he takes his kids sledding or walks his dog, following Trump’s personal attacks on him and the death threats that followed.
“It was not a factor in the decision to not seek a fourth term,” Schmidt said. “That would be like capitulating to the psychological terrorists, which was their point. Or else, I’d leave today.”
Schmidt, with three years left in his term, is open to the option of leaving earlier, if “an even more meaningful opportunity arises to serve in some important capacity, whether elected or appointed.”
Asked what posts would qualify, Schmidt said he hasn’t given that much thought since he’s been focused for months on running the 2020 election, an undertaking made far more complicated by the advent of no-excuse mail voting and a president who told lies before, during, and after Election Day about the process and result.
“It would be wildly irresponsible to have my eye on something else while this was going on,” he said.
Schmidt made his plans public first in an interview with Philadelphia magazine that published over the weekend, to let others know the seat will be open in 2023.
“I don’t like it when elected officials hold it until the last minute and try to game the system,” Schmidt said Monday. “It’s important that I close the door to myself and open the door for other people.”
Schmidt’s dozen years in Philadelphia politics often put him in conflict with fellow members of the Republican Party, long before the rise and fall of Trump.
His first foray in city politics came at the behest of the state GOP, which had long been unhappy with the moribund effort in the city, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans seven to one. Schmidt was part of the “Loyal Opposition,” a group pushing the Republican City Committee to be more competitive.
In his first bid for public office in 2009, Schmidt unsuccessfully challenged Alan Butkovitz, the Democratic incumbent for city controller. He drew attention for criticizing Butkovitz’s audit of the Philadelphia Parking Authority — the last bastion of Republican patronage jobs in the city — as not thorough enough in its examination of the agency.
Schmidt returned two years later, campaigning as a reformer for a seat as a city commissioner. One seat is set aside in the City Charter for a member of a minority political party. That has assured at least one Republican on the board for decades.
Schmidt won the seat in 2011 was then appointed to the PPA board by then-Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012.
Schmidt stood with Democrats and Republicans in 2016 as they denounced Trump’s false predictions about voter fraud in Pennsylvania ahead of that year’s election. He acknowledged then that voter fraud is a rare occurrence in the city, something his office has tracked and handed off to law enforcement for successful prosecution.
“The real threat to the integrity of elections in Philadelphia isn’t voter fraud,” Schmidt said before the 2016 election. “The real threat to the integrity of elections is irresponsible accusations that undermine confidence in the electoral process.
He stuck to that message in 2020, as Trump once again pushed false claims of fraud, allegations that many Pennsylvania Republicans parroted.
“In a typical election, candidates attack each other,” Schmidt said a month before Election Day. “In this election, it is our electoral system that is under attack.”
Elections officials bore the brunt of Trump’s rhetoric. A caller to Philadelphia’s 311 system just before the election suggested election officials would learn “firsthand, the hard way, why the Second Amendment exists.”
Through it all, state Republican Party chair Lawrence Tabas and State Rep. Martina White, chair of the party in the city, responded with silence as Schmidt faced a long series of false attacks.
Schmidt’s frequent national media appearances clearly rankled Trump, who targeted him with a Nov. 11 tweet, falsely claiming Schmidt “is being used big time by the Fake News Media to explain how honest things were with respect to the Election in Philadelphia. He refuses to look at the mountain of corruption & dishonesty. We win.!”
Trump lost. But he kept going, helping incite an insurrection at the Capitol last week, attempting to prevent the House and Senate from certifying the Electoral College ballots.
After the riot was put down, as Congress worked into the early morning on certification, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton Democrat, rose to commend election officials as “patriots,” citing Schmidt and the threats he and his family had faced. Casey read into the congressional record a quote from one of Schmidt’s two appearances last year on the CBS News program 60 Minutes.
“There really should not be a disagreement, regardless of party affiliation, when talking about counting votes … by eligible voters,” Schmidt said. “It is not a very controversial thing or, at least, it shouldn’t be.”