Back Channels: New faces would be good for city panel

Al Schmidt , a Republican, is running for city commissioner. Democrat Stephanie Singer is the race's other newcomer.
Al Schmidt , a Republican, is running for city commissioner. Democrat Stephanie Singer is the race's other newcomer. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 16, 2011

Al Schmidt is counting on the "give a damn" vote on Nov. 8.

Don't confuse this with what Philly candidates usually "give a damn" about: patronage, keeping factions within the Democratic machine happy, ensuring that fairness is the F-word of local elections - something just not said with a straight face.

Schmidt is talking about voters with a sense of civic responsibility, those who consistently show up on Election Day because they care about the city and its government. They wait in long lines with everyone else to vote for president, but they also show up in the off years, in those spring and fall elections when they might have the polling place to themselves.

Schmidt is one of four candidates for city commissioner, the office that oversees elections. He's one of two - the other is Stephanie Singer - who would help pump fresh blood into Philadelphia politics. The incumbents, Democrat Anthony Clark and Republican Joseph J. Duda, are also in the race. The top three vote-getters take office in January.

Neither Schmidt nor Singer has ever held elected office, but their professional backgrounds have more than prepared them for the commissioner job. Schmidt was an auditor with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and Singer is a former math professor who figured out how to post city election results online while the old regime acted like that was something only Harry Potter could conjure up.

It will require a rare bit of Philly ticket-splitting for the newcomers to win, though. Schmidt is a Republican and Singer's a Democrat. But that's just one more good reason for those who give a damn to elect these two and shake up City Hall.

Clark and Duda, along with chairwoman Marge Tartaglione, who lost her bid for reelection in the May primary, represent the "speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil" of Philadelphia elections.

As Schmidt said in an interview: "If you attend the city commissioners' meetings, especially the ones immediately following elections . . . it's a parade of people coming forward with complaints about what went on at their polling place. And having attended these for the last couple of years, the most shocking thing about it is it's the same people, doing the same things, in the same places, every year. . . .

"Complaints go to the city commissioners to die."

For example, he predicts the return next month of a perennial problem at a polling place at Fourth and York:

"There are going to be three guys standing out front, dressed in camouflage, and that's not because they'll be turkey hunting. . . . They're trying to stand out, and they're intimidating voters. . . .

"People aren't being beaten outside their polling place, but they're being stopped when they go in, they're being questioned about who they're voting for, and none of that should be happening at all."

At 60th and Market, Schmidt says, "our poll watchers are kicked out every year."

The problems aren't everywhere, Schmidt says, but they are consistent. The current commissioners do nothing, and voters lose faith in the system.

"People are kicked out, and the commissioners solve it by saying, 'Well, we'll pay them, too. They didn't work on the election board that day, but we'll pay them, too.' And they just kick the can down the road."

Training could solve many problems, Schmidt says.

"A lot of it happens because a lot of the people who work on election boards are new to it and don't know what they're doing," he says. "One of the roles of the city commissioners is to educate the election board to know how to run the polls."

If Schmidt is to be part of that education process, "give a damn" voters will be key, as they were in the spring.

In the GOP primary, Schmidt was running without his party's backing against Duda and his running mate, Marie Delany - who, by the way, now supports Schmidt. He hopes to expand that success, certainly with Democratic votes. But he's also reaching out to independents, Greens, and others, who together, Schmidt estimates, come close to equaling GOP numbers in the city.

"As a commissioner hopefully representing a minority party, we would be looking to speak on their behalf just as we are willing to speak for Republicans," Schmidt said.

His reform message seems to be getting through. His own party is now on board - finally. The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity backed him in the spring. In recent weeks, he has added the Firefighters and Paramedics Union Local 22 and the local chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, not usually a hotbed of support for GOP candidates.

Of course, it's hard not to like Schmidt. When I first met him, at the 2008 GOP convention in Minneapolis, he was literally helping little old ladies on the Pennsylvania delegation's bus.

But can decent, smart, and reform-minded carry the day in Philadelphia? Only if enough voters give a damn.


Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or kf@phillynews.com.

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