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Pennsylvania’s New Dem Gov. Picks Republican to Oversee State Elections

Josh Shapiro, the moderate who defeated Doug Mastriano, fulfills his pledge to make a pro-democracy pick.
by Jim Swift
January 5, 2023
Pennsylvania’s New Dem Gov. Picks Republican to Oversee State Elections
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt stands outside the Pennsylvania Convention Centre on November 6,2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With an unprecedented number of mail in votes for the 2020 Presidential Election due to the pandemic. Votes are still being tallied in key swing states across the country days after voting stopped. (Photo by Lynsey Addario/Getty Images)

While Republicans in Washington continue to fight among themselves over who will (nominally) run the U.S. House of Representatives, there have been some interesting developments in the states, our laboratories of democracy. In Ohio, Democrats in the state House of Representatives this week sided with moderate Republicans to deny the speakership to Derek Merrin, a far-right member who was picked for the job last year by his party colleagues. Something similar happened in Pennsylvania, where closely matched party caucuses in the state House of Representatives couldn’t reach an agreement on a speaker until Republicans joined with Democrats to elevate a moderate who pledges to serve as an independent.

And this morning, Pennsylvania’s incoming governor, Josh Shapiro, who is set to be sworn in on January 17, added to the spate of surprising reaching-across-the-aisle news with the announcement of his pick to be secretary of the commonwealth—the official who, among other responsibilities, is tasked with overseeing elections. Shapiro, who promised his administration would be “diverse” and “bipartisan,” announced the selection of a Republican by the name of Al Schmidt.

Al Schmidt is not a household name, at least outside of Philadelphia. But it’s possible you’ve heard of him if you paid very close attention to the work of the House January 6th Committee.

For a decade, Schmidt was a city commissioner in Philly, the commission’s token Republican. Among other accomplishments, he worked to modernize the city’s election infrastructure.

Then came the 2020 election. Schmidt pushed back against his party’s bogus claims of fraud in Philadelphia. This provoked the ire of President Donald Trump and his allies. While Schmidt’s case got less media attention than did Brad Raffensperger’s in Georgia, probably because there weren’t taped phone calls (and Pennsylvania is not notoriously red), Schmidt was nonetheless under serious pressure. Here’s a Trump tweet from the week after the 2020 election:

Schmidt told the Jan. 6th Committee about the effect of that tweet:

The threats prior to that tweet—and on some level it feels almost silly to talk about a tweet—but we can really see the impact that they have. Because prior to that the threats were pretty general in nature. Corrupt election officials in Philadelphia are going to get what’s coming to them. You’re what the second amendment is for.

You’re walking into the lion’s den. All sorts of things like that. After the President tweeted at me by name, calling me out the way that he did, the threats became much more specific, much more graphic, and included not just me by name but included members of my family by name, their ages, our address, pictures of our home.

Just every bit of detail that you could imagine. That was what changed with that tweet.

Schmidt announced last year that he was resigning from his government post to take over the presidency of the Committee of Seventy, a good-government nonprofit in Philly. Unlike all those Republicans who were primaried and defeated because they stood up to Trump and his cronies and told the truth, Schmidt probably could have kept his job for as long as he wanted.

Shapiro’s appointment of Schmidt is more than just feel-good window dressing: It’s a reminder of an unpleasant alternative timeline. Shapiro’s opponent, Doug Mastriano, outright campaigned on appointing somebody to the role who would disenfranchise Pennsylvanians.

“Al Schmidt has a proven track record of defending our democracy, protecting voting rights, and standing up to extremism—even in the face of grave threats,” Shapiro said in a press release this morning. “I am proud to nominate him to be Pennsylvania’s next Secretary of the Commonwealth.”

Last fall, as I talked with Shapiro on his campaign bus in the waning days of the gubernatorial race, he noted that the first appointment he had made while attorney general, his deputy AG, was a Republican. He doesn’t like surrounding himself with “yes people,” he told me.

An obvious exception should be made for picking a “yes person” when the question is: Do you believe in conducting free and fair elections? Let’s hope Pennsylvania’s state senators agree; Al Schmidt’s appointment, once Shapiro takes office, will be subject to confirmation by the Republican-run senate.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.