City Controller slugfest to finally end

    Tuesday is primary election day in Pennsylvania, which will bring a merciful end to a bitterly contested battle for the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia City Controller.

    It’s a three-way race to be Philadelphia’s elected financial watchdog, but the nastiest stuff is being traded between two term incumbent Alan Butkovitz and two-time challenger Brett Mandel.

    Though turnout is expected to be very low, the Controller’s post is an office of some visibility that has propelled more than one of its occupants into mayoral campaigns (none so far successful).

    One measure of a candidate is who his friends and supporters are. For our last take on the race, we look at the candidates’ endorsements and some of their media messages.

    Who’s your friend?

    Buktovitz, a former state representative and current Democratic ward leader, has the backing of the city Democratic party, a host of elected officials and ward leaders, as well as the AFL-CIO Council, many individual unions, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and former Governor Ed Rendell.

    Butkovitz’s  backers reflect his history as a veteran of traditional city politics. While Mandel says Buktovitz is compromised as controller by his political ties, Butkovitz says his political strength and fundraising ability give him the independence to be tough. He points to audits and investigations that have led to prosecutions and policy changes.

    Mandel is a civic activist and former analyst for previous City Controller Jonathan Saidel. He’s never held elected office (check that – he’s a Democratic committeeman, which is elected), but he’s built a following among good government progressives.

    His strongest endorsement comes from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which called him independent, experienced, and and bursting with creative ideas.

    He also has the backing of the Liberty City Democratic Club, the Guardian Civic League, Americans for Democratic Action, the Pentecostal Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and some elected officials, including State Senator Larry Farnese.

    What they’re saying

    Butkovitz and Mandel have traded hard blows in debates and campaign media, and some of the claims have pushed the limits of credibility.

    Mandel’s TV ad questions whether Butkovitz is responsible for Philadelphia’s school funding mess. An announcer says that “on Butkovitz’s watch, the school district’s 300 million dollar deficit forced neighborhood schools to close.”

    While the controller audits the school district, and Mandel correctly notes that he used to have a few politically-active employees on the school district payroll, it’s a stretch to suggest that Butkovitz is to blame for the districts deficits or school closings.

    “It’s fraudulent,” Butkovitz said of the ad. “It has been denounced, and in fact has been the catalyst for a very strong anti-Mandel campaign originating out of his base, among progressives.”

    It’s true a group of 19 liberal activists circulated a letter condemning Mandel for the ad, and the Inquirer called it “unfair” in its endorsement of Mandel.

    But some of Butkovitz’s campaign messages have proved controversial, too. One mail piece features a large headline that reads, “Brett Mandel raised your property taxes.”

    “That’s a flat out lie,” Mandel said. “Either the city controller doesn’t understand the way government works and doesn’t understand only the City Council and the mayor have a say in what our tax rates are, or he’s lying to the public. Or it could be he’s just a flat-out moron and doesn’t understand this.”

    Butkovitz defended the mailer by citing Mandel’s history as a tax policy advocate. Mandel served on a tax reform commission that favored moving the city’s tax structure away from wage and business taxes and toward property taxes. He headed the non-profit Philadelphia Forward, which pushed for similar changes, and he’s a long-time backer of the Actual Value Initiative, the move toward market value assessments in property taxes.

    There’s a debate about the impact of Mandel’s positions. He says he’s about fairer taxes while Butkovitz says he’s pushed changes that will drive up real estate taxes.

    But the truth is that Mandel has never held an office that had the power to raise anyone’s taxes.

    The third way

    The third candidate in the race is former city attorney Mark Zecca. He says Butkovitz hasn’t been an effective controller and says he is the only real alternative to the incumbent because Mandel has been exposed in the campaign as a political opportunist.

    Zecca points to a meeting last year at which he charges that Mandel proposed a political deal to get his support. The details of the meeting are disputed. You can read this report by the Daily News’ Chris Brennan, and it’s also discussed in the debate you can watch above.

    Zecca said at the debate that “we need to elect a controller who was not in that meeting.”

    Zecca’s campaign is largely self-funded, and he has fewer endorsements than his rivals, though he is backed by the group Action United, founded in part by former members of ACORN.

    His central message has been that the controller must go beyond issuing reports and insist on tougher financial controls throughout the government.

    He’s said Butkovitz should have been “shouting from the rooftops” that the city finance department needs controls to stop waste and theft. He says the controller should stop checks for departments that don’t tighten things up.

    “The city controller is required under the law to stop any payment that is not for a lawful purpose or not in an appropriate amount,” Zecca said in an interview last week. “We don’t begin to use that power to pressure the city to be accountable to the people.”

    Polls are open tomorrow from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The winner takes on Republican Terry Tracy in the fall.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.