Fight brewing in Philly controller’s race

    Rebecca Rhynhart

    Rebecca Rhynhart

    Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz will have a challenger in this spring’s Democratic party, a veteran city finance executive who’ll attack him with a well-worn message — that he’s a political insider and part of the city’s Democratic machine.

    Rebecca Rhynhart, 42, has spent nine years in city government as city budget director and, most recently, as Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief administrative officer.

    She says she has the professional skill to analyze city departments and the government experience needed to make real change.

    And she’s not shy about attacking Butkovitz right out of the box.

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    “Alan Butkovitz has been in elected office for 25 years,” Rhynhart said in an interview last week. “He’s part of the entrenched Democratic machine. I think it’s time for some new blood in the office.”

    It’s a familiar line of attack for those who watched Butkovitz’s successful re-election bids in 2009 and 2013.

    Former Deputy City Controller Brett Mandel went after Butkovitz with a similar message in those races, and he got plenty of support from independent voters in center city and a few other areas of the city. But he lost decisively twice.

    The pol who likes it

    Butkovitz has two answers to the charge that he’s a party hack.

    One is that he’s shown results in his three terms in office.

    “We’ve gotten consistent top awards from the Association of Local Government Auditors,” Butkovitz said. “And I consistently stand up to power. We’ve had the most aggressive and effective municipal government anti-corruption program.”

    Butkovitz also said that his political clout as an elected official and Democratic ward leader gives him the independence to fight for taxpayers.

    “It can be useful in an internal fight to be able to create allies, instead of being isolated or dominated as somebody who’s not in the political process,” Butkovitz said.

    Butkovitz said a close look at Rhynhart’s record in government will reveal plenty of blemishes. She has a case to make that she’s done great things, most recently in improving the city’s competitive bidding process. Both will have more to say about all of that as the campaign unfolds.

    Can an outsider win?

    Conventional Philadelphia political wisdom gives Butkovitz a big edge in the race.

    To begin with, he’s a three-term incumbent. She’s a newcomer to politics with no name recognition among voters.

    More importantly, controllers’ elections tend to be low-turnout affairs in which the recommendations of ward leaders, union leaders and other Democratic leaders often sway enough votes to carry the day.

    That’s not the world Rhynhart comes from, and it takes a lot of money to reach voters directly through advertising.

    How does she overcome it? She raises a ton of money, develops a great message and delivers it with charisma all over the city, connects with millennials motivated to get involved after Donald Trump’s win — and she gets lucky.

    The kind of luck that works for a challenger in these races is a nasty fight among establishment Democrats.

    In 2011, upstart reform candidate Stephanie Singer unseated veteran ward politician Marge Tartaglione for city commissioner with just such luck.

    Yes, she worked hard and had the backing of good-government types, but that year powerful electricians’ union leader John Dougherty was angry with Tartaglione because she hadn’t supported his guy for City Council, so he threw his troops behind Singer. Bingo.

    I have no idea if there’s a powerful Democrat around who has it in for Butkovitz, but her supporters say he’s not beloved in the party, and there will be openings to exploit.

    Butkovitz says he’s ready to debate his opponent.

    The primary is May 16.

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