Rhynhart run for Philly controller: Rage against the machine

     Rebecca Rhynhart is a Democratic candidate for Philadelphia city controller. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Rebecca Rhynhart is a Democratic candidate for Philadelphia city controller. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Rebecca Rhynhart is well-known to City Hall insiders, where she served nine years as city treasurer, budget director, and in a new post called chief administrative officer. Now she’s given that up to run for office against a three-term incumbent.

    Rhynhart, 42, is a candidate for city controller, the city’s elected financial watchdog in the May 16 Democratic primary.

    She said she’d been thinking about running for a while. Then Donald Trump won the White House.

    “After he won, I really felt I have to do this,” Rhynhart said in an interview. “I’ve never run for office, but I really feel that I can help the city. We need to make better financial decisions, and I really think that millions of dollars can be saved.”

    Rhynhart, who said her financial experience make her the best-qualified candidate for controller, spent seven years working in municipal finance on Wall Street — first for a bond rating agency, then for Bear Stearns.

    She decided she wanted to help a local government, and took a job as Philadelphia city treasurer under Mayor Michael Nutter. It was a homecoming of sorts for the woman who grew up in Abington.

    Millions to save?

    As a proactive city controller, Rhynhart said she’s sure she can save taxpayers at least $10 million.

    Lots of people say they’ll root out waste and corruption. Rhynhart said she’s done it, pointing to an innovation she pushed in the city’s competitive-bidding process, called “reverse auction” bidding — a kind of public procurement version of e-Bay.

    “It’s all electronic,” Rhynhart said. “Bidder A will say, ‘I’ll sell it to you for X price,’ and bidder B will say, ‘I’ll sell it to you for less,’ and there’s actually transparency in those prices — and it drives the prices down.”

    Who can you trust?

    Rhynhart’s other selling point is independence. She said she’s not a career politician like the incumbent, Alan Butkovitz, who spent 15 years in the state Legislature before winning the controller’s office in 2005.

    “He’s a ward leader, he’s been in politics and in power since I was in high school actually,” Rhynhart said. “It matters because I think it prevents him from taking tough stances against those that are part of that party political establishment.”

    Butkovitz said it’s his political clout that gives him the independence to audit and criticize office holders — almost all elected Democrats.

    But Rhynhart said Butkovitz picks his targets with politics in mind, and she won’t.

    It’s worth noting that the framers of the city charter made the city controller “an elected officer to make him independent of the officials whose expenditures he will audit,” according to the annotation in the charter.

    Can she win?

    Rhynhart got into the race in December and has raised a credible campaign fund — $223,000 as of March 27.

    But she’s been remarkably quiet until recently. Her first news conference was Tuesday, announcing the endorsement of former Gov. Ed Rendell.

    Apart from being a political newcomer trying to take out a veteran incumbent, Rhynhart faces a special challenge: She’s an anti-machine candidate in exactly the kind of election where the machine is most effective.

    The city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders don’t have a lot of influence over presidential votes. They matter a lot more in a low-turnout contest for a relatively obscure office.

    If the machine can get a few dozen voters in every precinct to accept their recommendations, that can be decisive in a race like this.

    I asked Rhynhart if she was talking to ward leaders and seeking their support.

    “Ward leaders are part of the political system that represent people, so I am visiting as many wards as possible to get my name out there,” Rhynhart said. “To me, it’s more about getting voters to know who I am and what I represent rather than seeking the support of specific people.”

    What she didn’t say is that it will help her a lot if ward leaders who may have had a beef with Butkovitz over the years conclude she has a chance and decide to back her.

    Ward support isn’t the only weapon in this race, of course.

    Ryhnhart should have enough money to wage some kind of media campaign, and she has the Philadelphia-based Campaign Group working on that.

    But time is short. The primary is May 16.

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