Omar Sabir replaces Lisa Deeley as chair of Philly City Commissioners

Sabir now leads the three-member board in charge of the city’s elections and voter registration

Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir

Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir Whitney Thomas

A shakeup among the Philadelphia City Commissioners has led to the ousting of chair Lisa Deeley and the election of Omar Sabir as the new chair of the three-member board tasked with overseeing the city’s elections and voter registration. 

The swap of Democrats was backed by Republican City Commissioner Seth Bluestein, who voted for Sabir during Wednesday’s reorganization meeting. Deeley, who was voted chair of the board in 2017, will now serve as vice-chair.

Deeley was nominated for another term as chair by Sabir, but neither she nor Bluestein seconded the motion. Instead, after Deeley proposed updated rules to create more centralized power for the board chair, Sabir and Bluestein went in another direction: Bluestein nominated Sabir as chair. After seconding the motion, and in a clear rejection of Deeley’s centralization proposal, Sabir was the new chair. 

Sabir, who was first elected to the board in 2019, served as vice-chair during this latest term. A Philadelphia native, Sabir previously served as a senior staffer for state Sen. Vincent Hughes and held other positions at the Nathaniel Sabir Memorial Scholarship Fund, Citizens for State Representative Louise Williams Bishop, and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. 

Referencing the groundbreaking Black civil rights activist Octavius Catto – who was killed on Election Day in 1871 – Sabir said being in this position today is “surreal.”

“Imagine what he would be thinking right now – that we have an African American Cheyney University graduate as chair,” Sabir told City & State. “My predecessor, Commissioner Deeley, served in the role of chair with honor, fairness, integrity and a spirit of cooperation. I will try to strive every day to personify that spirit.”

The leadership change came alongside rule changes for the board. Sabir and Bluestein also voted to give each commissioner the ability to hire staff and set salaries, as well as create positions for a director of election administration and director of election operations. Deeley reportedly opposed the decentralization moves, as the new directors will directly report to all three commissioners. 

Bluestein told City & State the new rules seek to make the board and its operations “a little bit more inclusive and collaborative.”

“The current rules and the other alternative proposal were not in line with my vision on how a three-member board should conduct its business,” Bluestein said. Noting that he is focused on the future of the commissioners' efforts, he stressed that he believes the board is “going to be building a very experienced, effective team to manage the elections in 2024.”

Deeley led the department through the administration of the 2020 presidential election, including a major shift toward mail-in voting during the height of the pandemic. 

In the aftermath of that election, the Philadelphia City Commissioners – most prominently involving then-commissioner Al Schmidt – were subjected to harassment and threats from people taken in by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about voter fraud in Philadelphia.

Schmidt declined to comment on today’s leadership changes.

Committee of Seventy President and CEO Lauren Cristella commented on the leadership change in a statement released after the meeting, saying in part: “As we prepare for the 2024 election, Philadelphians need to feel confident in our city’s ability to administer free, fair, safe and secure elections. All three of the City Commissioners have made meaningful contributions to this effort and have the necessary experience to ensure that our residents' voices will be heard come Election Day. On behalf of the Committee of Seventy, I would like to congratulate Commissioner Sabir on this appointment as Chair and thank Commissioner Deeley for her previous service in that role."