Rebel Republican wins seat on City Commission

Posted: November 09, 2011

Al Schmidt, the leader of a dissident faction inside Philadelphia's Republican Party, won a hotly contested race for city commissioner Tuesday, defeating four-term incumbent Joseph Duda, who was backed by the GOP's longtime power structure.

The vote leaves the commissioners - long the province of battle-toughened ward leaders schooled in the rough-and-tumble of street-level politics - with two Ph.D.'s among their three members - Schmidt with a doctorate in history from Brandeis University, and a new Democratic commissioner, Stephanie Singer, with a doctorate in mathematics from New York University.

Both Singer and the other Democratic candidate, one-term incumbent Anthony Clark, rode the party's 6-1 registration edge to easy victories, leaving Democrats in control of the city election machinery.

Schmidt held his own on Duda's home turf in Northeast Philadelphia while outpolling Duda in neighborhoods like Center City, University City, and Northwest Philadelphia, where some liberal groups paired Schmidt and Singer on a slate to bring change to the commissioners' office.

Schmidt now holds the swing vote in determining whether Clark or Singer becomes chairman of the agency to replace 78-year-old Marge Tartaglione, the combative great-grandmother who has held the reins of the city election machinery for most of the last 36 years.

Caught in several political crosscurrents, Tartaglione was displaced by Singer, a former Haverford College professor, in the Democratic primary last May.

While considered likely to back Singer, Schmidt said Tuesday night that he remained uncommitted.

"It's the most important vote I'll cast," Schmidt said. "I want to sit down with both of them and hear about their plans for reforming the office."

He said his priorities included putting more information onto the commissioners' website, making it easier for people "to get involved in the civic life of the city," and "making sure the office is a model of integrity, so people have confidence that elections in our city are fair."

"Every election there are issues of voter intimidation and improper electioneering, and it keeps happening over and over again, with the office most responsible not doing anything about it," Schmidt said, repeating a campaign theme.

Schmidt, 40, has been a leader of an organizing effort funded by the state Republican Party to recruit more GOP committeemen and ward leaders inside Philadelphia.

It has coincided with the growth of a group calling itself the Loyal Opposition, increasingly vocal in criticizing the party's general counsel and acknowledged leader, Michael P. Meehan, the third generation of his family to lead the city's GOP organization.

When the party's official sample ballots surfaced last week, Duda's name was in red while the rest of the ticket, including Schmidt's name, was blue.

Vito F. Canuso Jr., whose election as city Republican chairman last year was voided by the state committee because of multiple irregularities, explained: "We always do it that way. The incumbents are the ones who have not tried to stab anybody else in the back. . . ."

Duda, 72, has been active in Republican politics for nearly 50 years, becoming a GOP committeeman in the Far Northeast's 66th Ward at age 25. His ward leader was the late "Billy" Meehan, Michael's father.

Schmidt is a former staff member of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

He grew up in Pittsburgh and became a Philadelphia resident just six years ago, when his wife, Erin, a Northeast Philadelphia native, graduated from law school in Washington and joined a Philadelphia firm.

Schmidt was the GOP's candidate for city controller two years ago, but antagonized some in the party leadership with attacks on the Parking Authority, the GOP's primary source of patronage jobs and contracts.


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ontact staff writer Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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