Challenger Butkovitz: Philly Mayor Kenney ‘nothing to anybody’

Former city controller Alan Butkovitz says Mayor Jim Kenney is allowing indicted union leader John Dougherty to call the shots at City Hall. Butkovitz intends to challenge Kenney in the May Democratic primary. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Former city controller Alan Butkovitz says Mayor Jim Kenney is allowing indicted union leader John Dougherty to call the shots at City Hall. Butkovitz intends to challenge Kenney in the May Democratic primary. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Charging that Philadelphia Mayor Kim Kenney has failed to create jobs, fight poverty, strengthen schools or reduce crime, former City Controller Alan Butkovitz has announced he’ll challenge the mayor in May’s Democratic primary.

“This mayor ran for the office on the basis that he was going to be everything to everybody, and, once in, he became nothing to anybody,” Butkovitz told a crowd of about 30 supporters at the Marriott Courtyard across the street from City Hall.

Butkovitz also said Kenney has failed to live up to his 2015 campaign promise to end the police department’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy.

“It is an assault on the dignity of every person of color in the city,” Butkovitz said, adding that it makes community-police partnerships harder to establish.

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The department’s pedestrian stops are now independently monitored as part of a court settlement.

The most recent report found that pedestrian stops dropped by more than one-third since 2015. Still, the report found more than 35,000 pedestrians were stopped without any legal basis, something police officials hope to address with additional training as part of the ongoing court supervision.

Butkovitz also criticized one of Kenney’s signature achievements — a sweetened-beverage tax enacted to fund expanded pre-K and investments in the city’s parks, libraries and recreation centers.

He said the tax drives retail business out of the city and threatens grocery stores that have invested in Philadelphia neighborhoods. “The soda tax should be repealed,” Butkovitz said.

Can he win?

As Butkovitz began his announcement speech, he struggled to turn his microphone on and quipped, “That’s what happens when you don’t have the electricians.”

He was referring to the International Brotherhood of Electricians Local 98, which has supported him in past runs, but is firmly in Kenney’s camp in the mayor’s race.

It was striking that, while Butkovitz has been a party ward leader and elected official for decades, not a single union leader or prominent Democrat stood with him at his announcement.

Butkovitz said that’s not a surprise.

“Politicians are going to be scared to death about tackling an incumbent mayor,” he said, but added that it won’t keep him from winning.

“I don’t need anybody to fall on a sword for me, or to make any kind of symbolic move. A decision for mayor in Philadelphia is the one thing you can count on the voters making up their own minds on.”

Butkovitz is bucking a historical trend. Since the city’s charter was adopted nearly 70 years ago, no incumbent mayor has lost a re-election bid.

The former controller has the advantage of having served as a citywide elected official for 12 years and having won six citywide elections – primary and general elections in 2005, 2009, and 2013.

But those elections are less costly, generally lower-turnout affairs than mayoral races.

Butkovitz lost the controller’s post last year, when first-time candidate Rebecca Rhynhart rode a wave of younger voters to a convincing win in the Democratic primary.

He begins the campaign with little campaign cash ($18,000 in his most recent report) for a race that can easily cost millions.

Butkovitz noted that Kenney and other candidates raised more than $1 million in a few months in past mayoral races, and he said there are plenty of dissatisfied constituencies to tap for contributions — including thousands of homeowners angry about rising property assessments.

“Mass fundraising appeals,” Butkovitz said. “It worked for Bernie Sanders at the national level … it has to work on the local level because you actually go out and ask people, and you talk to people who have a stake in what is going on.”

A potentially lucrative source of support could be the soda companies angry about Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax.

But city contribution limits could mean they’ll have to form their own independent expenditure committee if they want to put large sums of money into the race.

I asked Butkovitz if he thinks soda executives will fund a super PAC to support him.

“I don’t know, but I sure hope so,” he said with a chuckle.

Kenney declined to address Butkovitz’s criticisms when reporters asked about the primary challenge.

“I have no comment about him, and no reason to comment about him,” Kenney said.

Kenney campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement that “under Mayor Kenney, Philadelphia has led the country on criminal justice reform, reduced overall violent crime, and tackled generational poverty through dramatic, systemic changes to our city’s education system.”

“The voters of Philadelphia want a progressive leader, someone who will stand up to the rich and powerful,” she said, “not a corporate Democrat who is aligning himself with greedy soda CEOs who want to take pre-K and public school funding away from our kids.”

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