Recruitment has long been the bane of the Philly GOP. “When a minority party is weak,” Schmidt says, “you’re not attracting quality candidates.” Case in point: Al Taubenberger, the hapless Northeast Philadelphia chamber-of-commerce drone who ran for mayor in 2007 and earned just 17 percent of the vote to Michael Nutter’s 83 percent, and whose campaign mainly consisted of praising his opponent. To paraphrase the old Groucho Marx joke: You wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have Al Taubenberger as a member. “Your party gets weaker, and then registration begins to plummet, and all sorts of dominoes begin to fall,” Schmidt says. “You can’t let yourself get pulled into the death spiral.”
So Schmidt decided to quit his job and run for office himself — for City Controller, the city’s top auditor — this November. He was more than qualified. From 1999 to 2001, he’d worked on Bill Clinton’s Holocaust commission, helping to track down Nazi cash streams and returning ill-gotten gains to Holocaust survivors. He went on to join the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, auditing several federal agencies involved in counterterrorism and intelligence gathering. Schmidt had served his country with distinction. And now, as a candidate for City Controller, he’d be running against incumbent Alan Butkovitz, a Democratic ward leader who, Schmidt says, failed to audit his fellow Democrats who ran city agencies, as he was required to do by law. It was a textbook case of a one-party system producing a perverse result, and a golden opportunity for the Republicans. But when Schmidt set up a meeting with Michael Meehan and asked for his support, Meehan said, essentially: Don’t run.
It will be hard, Meehan told him. It will be tough on your young family. You’ll probably lose. So you should think very, very hard.
“It was,” Schmidt tells me, sucking in a huge breath, “interesting.”
“Interesting” isn’t the word the Loyal Opposition’s president, Marc Collazzo, would use. “You know, we finally have a candidate who excites the base, who excites our members, and is made for the job he’s running for,” Collazzo says. “And we actually get resistance from the party leadership.” This year’s election is an off-year election. Off-year elections are low-turnout, giving an edge to the minority party. As Schmidt puts it: “Lightning is never going to strike unless you’ve climbed onto the roof to get struck.” Says Collazzo, “If we get a high Republican turnout, we can win.”
But a high turnout requires money, workers and organization. And you only need to take one look at the way Al Schmidt is campaigning — by begging his family and friends for donations, by crashing Democratic rallies and holding up his lonely signs (“A CONTROLLER WHO WON’T BE AFRAID TO POKE AROUND”) — to know he isn’t getting any of that.