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City Council confirms Republican Seth Bluestein to fill vacant City Commissioner seat

Bluestein filled a vacancy left by his former boss Al Schmidt amid some opposition from progressive lawmakers.

Seth Bluestein, Chief Deputy Commissioner for City Commissioner Al Schmidt, walks the hallway of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in November 2020.
Seth Bluestein, Chief Deputy Commissioner for City Commissioner Al Schmidt, walks the hallway of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in November 2020.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

City Council on Thursday voted to confirm Seth Bluestein as one of the three commissioners on the city’s three-person election board, filling a vacancy left by Bluestein’s former boss, Al Schmidt, amid some opposition from progressive lawmakers.

Mayor Jim Kenney nominated Bluestein — a Republican deputy commissioner who worked in Schmidt’s office for nearly a decade — citing his “character, experience, and expertise needed to help effectively and efficiently administer Philadelphia’s elections.”

While the confirmation was widely expected, it faced resistance from some progressive lawmakers who sought to steer the seat away from the Republican Party, despite bipartisan support for Bluestein.

No party can hold more than two commissioner seats, which has long meant that Democrats control two seats and Republicans one. Councilmember Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party — who in 2019 captured an at-large Council seat historically held by Republicans — was the sole no vote against Bluestein.

A highly regarded three-term commissioner, Schmidt stepped down last month to take over as president and CEO of the good-government watchdog group the Committee of Seventy. Bluestein, a Philadelphia native who got his master’s in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania, joined Schmidt’s office in 2012, climbing the ranks to first deputy, where he helped oversee one of the most explosive elections in city history.

“I look forward to continuing my service,” Bluestein, 32, said Thursday. “And I’m grateful for the bipartisan support on Council — because that’s how we operate in the commissioners’ office.”

Schmidt’s office became the de facto spokesperson for the haywire 2020 presidential contest, with the nation’s eyes trained on Philadelphia’s vote count for days until the race was called. Alongside their Democratic colleagues, the Republican officials defended the integrity of the election against relentless false claims about voter fraud leveled by former President Donald Trump and his allies. Commissioners endured abuse that ranged from death threats to harassment. Bluestein himself received disturbing messages from stalkers on his personal cell phone, he said at the time.

Brooks criticized Kenney for nominating the Republican without “due consideration” for third-party candidates. A coalition of five progressive state lawmakers also submitted a letter calling on Council to renounce the Republican Party, though two officials eventually withdrew their names from the campaign.

Ahead of her no vote on Thursday, Brooks voiced opposition not against Bluestein as an election official but about the GOP as a whole.

“Across the country, the GOP has been leading efforts to undermine the integrity of our elections by silencing working-class Black people, immigrants, and marginalized voters,” Brooks said. “We don’t need to continue giving power to a party chipping away at our democracy.”

Councilmember David Oh, the sole at-large Republican on Council, noted that Bluestein had cultivated a pristine reputation as an elections administrator who worked in a “nonpartisan manner.”

“Yeah, he’s a Republican, but I think we judge the fruit on every tree on the basis of what it produces,” Oh said. “He is someone with integrity, someone who has been a non-political person serving the public interest, and it’s rare you get someone like that.”

Bluestein also carries the support of his Democratic colleagues into the office. In her endorsement statement, City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said: “The job of commissioner is not about left vs. right; it is about competence and commitment to democracy.”

The newly appointed commissioner said he understands the interest in the seat and noted that his experience administering the 2020 election will help the city through this year’s contested Pennsylvania Senate race.

With his term ending in 2024, Bluestein will be up for election next year — and likely to face competition. The Working Families Party confirmed it would be putting up a candidate in the race.