To judge by his campaign appearances, Al Schmidt wears the same tie every day—but somehow, amazingly, it doesn’t have a stain on it. “The easy solution is to not eat mustard,” says Schmidt, a Republican candidate for the City Commissioner’s Office, the body that runs Philadelphia’s elections. In fact, he admits, he owns multiples of the same red and blue striped tie. “It’s a real glimpse into my psychopathology,” he says. “I’m the dullest person you’ve ever met.”
While Schmidt ally and Republican mayoral candidate John Featherman describes him as “a geek and a nerd,” the 39 year old’s candidacy represents the strongest thrust yet of efforts to inject potency to the city’s perpetually flaccid Republican establishment.
“The party is so starved to the bone,” Schmidt says, sitting in the back room of his Mayfair campaign headquarters while workers and volunteers pass through to use the restroom. “It’s a different race. To be competitive on the Republican side—that’s unheard of.”
Schmidt, who has a Ph.D in political history from Brandeis University, was an analyst for the U.S. Commission on Holocaust Assets as well as for the federal Government Accountability Office. A former adviser to the state Republican Party, he also worked as executive director for the local Republican City Committee, but the relationship fell apart when factions within the party declined to support him in his unsuccessful 2009 run for City Controller. Instead, he aligned himself with like-minded Republicans in a group called the Loyal Opposition to challenge the RCC’s legacy, mostly notable for tacitly aiding Democratic political ambitions in exchange for patronage jobs at the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
If he’s to be elected, Schmidt has to get his name out to the city’s Republican enclaves, which aren’t used to having much of a choice in the primaries. “We’re calling every day, going to doors every day,” he says, gesturing toward a map of Philadelphia with green pushpins indicating neighborhoods the campaign staff has already canvassed. “They’ll know us by then [Election Day May 17] and they’ll know what we’re all about.”
And part of Schmidt’s appeal to voters lies in his outsider status. Currently, the establishment RCC is the subject of a grand jury investigation for “irregularities” in last year’s committee elections—i.e., voter fraud. And the Commissioner’s Office itself has been implicated in a number of shady dealings over the decades. “It’s an office that’s comfortable being out of the public eye,” Schmidt says.
Which is why he’s been on the offensive from the start, releasing a stack of documents in December that passed through the Commission from local, state and federal officials’ offices, then later, others originating from Commissioner Anthony Clark, which show examples of prohibited political activity using public resources. He also notes that the city spends twice as much per voter for elections compared with the rest of Pennsylvania, yet gets consistently low turnout. “Voter turnout is suppressed when people don’t have confidence that their vote will count,” Schmidt says.
His main opponent for the Commission seat, RCC-endorsed four-term incumbent Joseph Duda, may well be the most mysterious man in city government. Walking slowly with a stooped shoulder, dangling a leather briefcase from one hand, Duda can sometimes be spotted during the day at the RCC headquarters in the Windsor Hotel, though party chair Vito Canuso denies that the commissioner currently serves the party in any particular capacity other than ward leader. “There are various desks and chairs and I’m sure he sits at a desk when he wants to and can use the facilities there,” Canuso says.
Duda drives his city-owned car far more miles than can be accounted for than by his commute to work, to the tune of 1,350 gallons of fuel burned in fiscal year 2010. Neither he nor his colleagues have filed any reimbursement forms since 2000 to account for money spent by the office. They don’t keep time sheets. Duda has ignored numerous interview requests over the past year, although his staff did send a fax outlining his alleged accomplishments and campaign positions (modernizing voting machines, increasing handicapped access, uniform financial reporting requirements and educational programs for new voters, among others).
In the strange mechanism of the Commissioner’s race, two Republicans will pass next week’s election to compete in the fall for the three total positions, two of which are won near-automatically by Democrats. From the perspective of the Loyal Opposition, to prevent Schmidt from advancing the RCC needs a second candidate to support in the primary, who can then step aside to let Duda win in November. First, it appeared ward leader Chris Vogler might fill the role, but he dropped out before officially filing to run. “I’m not going to move forward and run a campaign just to go through the motions,” Vogler says. Another candidate, James Mugford, was endorsed by the RCC, but dropped out earlier this spring. A third challenger, Marie Delaney, picked up the stray endorsement two weeks ago, but snorts at the idea that she’s running to lose. “[Detractors] are trying to say that to discredit me,” she says. “When the primary’s over, it’s every man for themselves.”
Despite the lack of party support, Schmidt has earned the endorsements of the Inquirer, the Daily News, the black clergy, the housing police, the Pentecostal clergy and the firefighters union—the last two of whom have also endorsed a certain flamboyant mayoral candidate. “I never thought I’d have so much in common with Milton Street,” Schmidt laughs.
Curiously, on Duda’s original statement of financial interest for the campaign, he checked “none” on the question about direct and indirect sources of income despite the fact that he earns nearly $118,000 per year. He also failed to note that he owns a house on the Jersey Shore under a section for real estate. Schmidt challenged the petition and Duda amended the form to correctly reflect his income and assets. “It shouldn’t be incumbent on me to determine what his sources of income are,” Schmidt says, annoyed.
In the meantime, he grapples with the narcissistic requirements of the campaign. “Everything is the opposite of how your parents raised you—to not brag, not talk about yourself and not ask for money,” Schmidt says, glossing over the irony that those are skills most politicians excel at. “It’s never comfortable unless there’s something wrong with you.”