Think back to the fall of 2020, when Philly was at the epicenter of the nation’s political drama. Remember Four Seasons Landscaping? All those folks dancing in the streets when the votes had been (finally) been counted and the Keystone state had put Joe Biden over the top?
How about when one lone Republican — a soft-spoken, gentlemanly, Philly GOPer who is more descendant, philosophically speaking, of Thacher Longstreth than Donald Trump — stood up to the seditionist-in-chief and his henchmen and unflinchingly shot down the BS of a stolen election?
That was then-City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who, along with his family, promptly received the most vile threats from the Trump mob. Schmidt’s integrity and straight-shooting were invaluable; had the Commissioner’s Office been comprised of three Democrats who knows how many others might have found Trump’s lies of a conspiracy credible?
Once Republicans begin winning, and they will, will there be a universe of Democrats who become election deniers and claim that elections they’ve lost have been stolen from them?
But there was Schmidt, and a host of other Republican election officials nationwide, doubling down on truth and the rule of law. I’d long argued that we shouldn’t be electing three row office commissioners, one of which, by charter decree, had to be reserved for the city’s minority party; Schmidt’s standing up for election integrity convinced me otherwise.
There he was again, earlier this week, testifying before Congress’ January 6 Committee. As in 2020, Schmidt’s testimony was straightforward and morally righteous. In the mid-aughts, I got to know Schmidt when he sought to reform the local Republican party, after having worked in the federal government as an auditor at the Government Accountability Office. His instinct is always good government. When he became commissioner, he reformed the office itself, demystifying our elections by releasing data sets that should have been released all along.
After his testimony this week, I caught up with Schmidt, who is now the CEO of the good government group Committee of Seventy. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
So tell me, just how did you become Jimmy Stewart this week?
(Laughs) I had been in contact with the committee for weeks or months, as they had questions about what had happened in Pennsylvania. I had been a sort of resource to them. Then, a week ago or so, they called and asked if I would testify. And not just me, but a panel of witnesses who could speak about the Big Lie, and the paranoid fantasy of a stolen election. The people who believe those lies? I don’t doubt they love America. But they sure hate democracy when it doesn’t go their way.
On the day you testified, there were a lot of Republicans testifying. Bill Barr told the truth — which reminds us of the power of a subpoena and placing testimony under oath. So I found myself reminded of the power of rule of law, and it also made me wonder if maybe reports of the death of the Republican party are premature.
And it wasn’t just the four or five who were called to testify, like me. Every witness and every one who had given a deposition were Republican. That’s an important part of this. You had Trump’s Attorney General and his campaign manager saying they had looked into allegations of voter fraud and found nothing.
You and I have talked in the past about the good old days of Jack Kemp Republicanism, which I’d been thinking is dead. It begs the question: Other sane Republicans like Nicolle Wallace and William Kristol have quit the party. Have you considered doing the same?
I have a lot of respect for both of them. And I’m sure they made the right decisions for them. For me, it’s a little different. My political views haven’t changed; they’re the same as before. But my view of the Republican party has, because of the widespread embrace of this election myth. But I’ve been a Republican longer than Donald Trump. You know, normally, not long ago, when elected officials did totally crazy things there would be consequences for them at the ballot box.
You could make the case that there were consequences for Trump at the ballot box — he lost the popular vote in 2016, he got creamed in the 2018 midterm, and he got beat pretty handily in 2020——
It wasn’t even close. Not just in Pennsylvania, which he lost by 80,000 votes. He lost Georgia. He lost Michigan.
So should that make us feel cautiously optimistic? The center, so to speak, held?
This is a debate that’s going on, and I go back and forth on it. Did things not fall apart just because we had a handful of people who happened to be in the right place at the right time who were willing to do the right thing, or was it the strength of our institutions that made the difference? Were we just lucky that we had guys like [Georgia Secretary of State] Brad Raffensperger? I’ll tell you one institution that stepped up — the judiciary.
That’s exactly right.
Going to court is a put up or shut up moment. You can say what you want on Newsmax, but in court you have to back it up. They lost 61 of 62 cases in court, and the one was really a technicality. That included Republican judges, and even Trump-appointed judges.
Speaking of those who we were lucky enough to have had to stand up for democracy in 2020, is it like some secret society now? Are you in touch with Brad Raffensperger and Stephen Richer in Arizona?
(Laughs) Yes, we’re in touch. We see each other at election association conferences, or we text one another or talk on the phone. We’re all different. Even in that universe, there’s political diversity. Richer is a sort of young libertarian, very quick-witted, very intelligent. Brad is very conservative, very conservative. Electorally, it’s going to be very interesting to see if more traditional Republicans defeat election deniers in primaries, like Brad just did. It will be interesting to see how deniers do against squishy moderate Republicans or more conservative traditional Republicans.
Good point. I’ve told you that what you did in 2020 made me reconsider my belief that the commissioners’ office shouldn’t be an elected office. As a Republican standing up to election denial from other Republicans, you had Nixon going to China credibility, and I shudder to think what might have happened had you not stood up as you did. It might sound like hyperbole, but you were actually heroic.
I think that’s a great overstatement. I don’t think people should get so much credit just for telling the truth. What would the alternative be? Lie about it? That was never going to be a consideration.
But when no one else is stepping up like that, those that do are heroic.
One thing to watch is, once Republicans begin winning, and they will, will there be a universe of Democrats who become election deniers and claim that elections they’ve lost have been stolen from them? Right now, only one of two major parties embraces election denial — it will be really dangerous if both go down that road.
That’s interesting. There was a moment in 2016 when I hoped the reaction to Trumpism would be a reemergence of communitarianism and pragmatism. But much of the Democratic left reacted to Trump as Trump would have.
Yes, remember: Trump didn’t come up with the lie about Dominion voting machines. That actually originated with the Green party and Jill Stein.
I don’t think people should get so much credit just for telling the truth. What would the alternative be? Lie about it?
I’d forgotten that. Let me ask you, after all you’ve been through, are you optimistic?
Well, there’s no alternative that’s accessible other than to strengthen democracy and make sure that all voters have access to the ballot box, right? But election denial beliefs are still so widespread among Republicans two years after the 2020 election. If January 6 didn’t wake people up, you have to wonder what will. But you have to keep telling the truth about the lie, both Democrats and Republicans.
Finally, Al, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your plans for Committee of Seventy.
When I go around the country and talk to different election organizations and secretaries of state, all of them wish they had an organization that’s exactly like Committee of Seventy. It’s been around for 100 years and trying to ensure free and fair elections has always played a role in its mission. We’re going to lean heavily into that.
Al, thank you for being a beacon of integrity.
Watch Al Schmidt’s testimony here (7 minutes):
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