For a long time, opponents have been calling Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz a professional politician, thinking it’s going to bother him. It doesn’t.
Butkovitz, now running for a fourth term, spent 15 years in Pennsylvania’s Legislature before running for the office of controller. He’s been a Democratic ward leader for two decades.
Critics say he can’t be an aggressive auditor because he’s a political animal.
“He has refused to ruffle political feathers in most cases,” former Gov. Ed Rendell said just this week.
Saying they have it all wrong, Butkovitz said having political clout gives him the independence to take on the big dogs when he has to.
“Mayor Nutter was a ward leader. Everybody thought that was OK,” Butkovitz said in a recent interview. “The point is that he needed that position so that he could fight off the other ward leaders, and he could have a chance of getting his agenda adopted. How’s it different with me?”
Can the watchdog bite?
The city controller is the city’s elected financial watchdog, a position created in the City Charter to audit city departments and point out waste and corruption.
Butkovitz said he’s done just that since his election in 2005.
“We’ve turned this controller’s office into the lead local government anti-corruption unit,” Butkovitz said. “We formed the basic evidence for the federal case against Sheriff John Green, against several charter schools, and we’ve also taken a deep dive into misspending at the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia.”
Butkovitz is right that his office aggressively investigated Green, an elected Democrat who was later indicted.
And he noted that he once got powerful state Sen. Vince Fumo so angry at him that Fumo tried to eliminate his office.
Others say Butkovitz picks his battles, advancing the agenda of union supporters, and tiptoeing around the Philadelphia Parking Authority, traditionally a haven of political patronage.
Butkovitz disputes that, noting that he audited the parking authority in 2009 and released critical findings.
A lifelong pursuit
Butkovitz grew up in Philadelphia’s Wynnefield section and moved to Northeast Philadelphia after he graduated from Temple with a degree in political science.
He inherited a passion for politics from his grandmother who emigrated from Russia.
“She was a big supporter of John F. Kennedy,” Butkovitz said. “I was always reading these biographies she had.”
He started volunteering on campaigns, working at polling places as a teenager.
He got married, went to Temple Law and became a Democratic committeeman in the 54th Ward. He won a legislative seat on his third try.
He’d run against the party the first time — and succeeded — when then state House Speaker Bob O’Donnell backed him to replace a retiring lawmaker.
That seems typical of Butkovitz’s career. He’s run against party leader often enough (he challenged state Rep. Dwight Evans’ leadership position twice), but also knew how to make peace and make alliances.
He can talk city politics as long as you’ll listen, but he also talks policy, and seems to have a credible policy explanation for every move others see as political.
Butkovitz comes into his re-election contest with former city budget director Rebecca Rhynhart with the advantages of incumbency. That’s partly money and name recognition, but in what’s expected to be a low-turnout primary on May 16, the bigger asset is his relationship with the party’s 68 other Democratic ward leaders.
It’s an axiom of city politics that voters won’t turn to ward leaders’ advice for a presidential vote, but will go along with them for an office like city controller.
Butkovitz has been endorsed by the city Democratic Party and the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Council.