Brett Mandel: Candidate for City Controller from Rhawnhurst

Updated: 5/5/09 10:16 p.m., added education and family details

By Christopher Wink

This Thursday, NEastPhilly.com is co-hosting with WHYY a panel discussion among the three Democratic candidates for city controller — incumbent Alan Butkovitz and challengers John Braxton and Brett Mandel. Butkovitz and Mandel both have ties to the NEast, so we sat down with each. The first came yesterday with Butkovitz, and today read our interview with Mandel.

Brett Mandel wants to be city controller enough that he is running against Alan Butkovitz, a high-profile incumbent in a citywide election that rarely garners citywide attention: city controller, charged with overseeing city government spending.

But the Rhawnhurst native says he has to, because Butkovitz is more about show than substance and the city, his city, is in worse shape because of it.

NEastPhilly.com interviewed both Mandel and his opponent Butkovitz and are sharing their interviews.  The incumbent went first – see our Q&A with Butkovitz here. See Mandel’s below.

Name: Brett Mandel Age: 39 (May 10, 1969) Raised: Rhawnhurst, Northeast Lives: Fitler Square, Center City Position: Executive Director, Philadelphia Forward Education: Rhawnhurst Elementary School; Woodrow Wilson Middle School; Northeast High School; Hamilton College (Clinton, N.Y.); Master’s from Fels Center of Government at the University of Pennsylvania Family: Wife, two daughters and son

Brett Mandel, No. 5, at right, in this Northeast High School baseball team photo from 1987. Photo courtesy of Brett Mandel. Transcript of interview was edited for length and clarity.

  1. What memories do you remember best about growing up in Rhawnhurst? I grew up right behind Northeast High… I remember playing sports first and foremost, playing sports in the driveway behind the house. When it was cold, we’d turn on the hose and ice it over and play hockey. During the summer it was for baseball. It changed with the season… The things everyone did then. When I got older it was going to Roosevelt Mall. For me it was the Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center.
  2. What was your family environment like? My parents split when I was 10, and my father moved to Delair Landing, which is about as far as the Northeast goes, nearly on the river. After he moved, my life was shuttling between Delair Landing and Rhawnhurst. It was a tour of the great Northeast. I loved it, actually… It was sheltered in some ways. I remember growing up thinking the old First Trust Center at Castor and Cottman was the tallest building in the world. I didn’t realize the world was much taller… I remember Liberty Place going up. You could go, I guess, south on Summerdale or Algon and be able to see City Hall. Suddenly Liberty Place was bigger than City Hall. I still remember thinking to myself, ‘This city is incredible.’
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How has your neighborhood changed from when you were growing up to today? Well, the place is changing for sure. Did you see that Philadelphia magazine article?… It’s like that, a little, I think. I still go up every year to the Northeast-Central [high school football] game. This year I took my daughter and we drove by block, and, I have to say, catty-corner was a house that was boarded up. I don’t think I ever saw that growing up. Maybe I didn’t notice it. Maybe I didn’t notice the graffiti. Maybe I didn’t notice the cars being worked on in the driveways. Maybe I didn’t notice all of it when I was younger. Maybe I romanticize it, but the neighborhood looks less cared for now… Also, I always thought there was tremendous diversity when I was young. Well, you know, in my friends, I had an Irish friend and I German friend. I was the odd-man out as the Jewish kid… Then later, near the end at Rhawnhurst [Elementary] there were African-Americans and Hispanic kids. That was eye-opening, in a good way. It showed me this city is bigger than I thought. At Woodrow I got the melting pot of the city. That was a lot different. I can remember. This is the whole world. Suddenly you realize there’s a big world there. It was a little cloistered, a little insulated. The Northeast is part of the broader city, which is part of a broader world.

  • Why should Northeast residents care about the city controller’s race? With the city in fiscal crisis, this position is really important. The controller makes sure we are spending our money efficiently and effectively, and points out waste and corruption. We are in a budget crisis, are we going to raise taxes and services? Everything the controller can point out matters now. This is huge. The current controller [Alan Butkovitz] isn’t a dumb guy. He pulls his punches. He is a ward leader, so he doesn’t investigate all the he needs to… He is not looking at the Parking Authority and on and on. The city controller is woefully behind in departmental audits, so we don’t really know where all the waste is. The mayor is going to budget workshops trying to find ways to make a budget, and the controller is stuck in his office making audits from four years ago.
  • What are you going to do that Alan Butkovitz, a fairly high-profile controller, hasn’t done? No. 1: I am going to do the job. I am going to try to make change, not headlines, empowering the audit staff, not selectively auditing. Don’t find some sexy topic, do the work you’re supposed to do. I am going to make sure that I am looking at every agency every year, as in the charter. Not be in it for the Democratic Party… I have nothing against the party. I am in it. It’s a wonderful party, but the elected city controller should not be a ward leader. He should be reviewing how tax money is spent.
  • Any guesses why two men with ties to Northeast Philadelphia would want this job? It is a tribute to the strength and character of Northeast Philadelphia, and in my case, it is a tribute to the fine schools that turn out intelligent and articulate products that can lead this city.
  • Of Note: His Central High School-graduate wife grew up in East Oak Lane.

    “I tell her she is more Olney than the northwest,” Mandel says. What do you think about that? Does Mandel have the clout to unseat Butkovitz? Top photo courtesy of Philadelphia Forward.

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