Tuesday night’s Democratic primary City Controller debate—hosted by The Citizen and The Committee of Seventy—was a revelation. In front of a crowded room, 11-year incumbent Alan Butkovitz and newcomer Rebecca Rhynhart sparred heatedly for what might be the most boring-sounding and not understood elected office in the entire city government.
They argued about who should have prevented the city’s $8 million payment to the World Meeting of Families after the Pope’s visit. (Butkovitz said Rhynhart, as Mayor Nutter’s budget director could have stopped it; Rhynhart said Butkovitz should have not issued the payment.) They fought over who would get more from the Philadelphia Parking Authority. (Rhynhart accused Butkovitz of not auditing the agency since 2009 because of “political reasons;” Butkovitz said he’s waiting for the state audit of the agency to be completed and questioned why Rhynhart didn’t demand more from the PPA when she was budget director.) They also tussled over Butkovitz’s damning audit of Sheriff John Green, the Mayor’s Fund and the soda tax, which Rhynhart—formerly the city’s Chief Administrative Officer—supported as part of Mayor Kenney’s administration.
It was a surprisingly feisty exchange that in substance and style summed up the opponents’ differences. In his years as the city’s chief financial watchdog, Butkovitz has reveled in splashy confrontation, holding press conferences and issuing gotcha-style reports on corruption he has uncovered in various offices, including the Sheriff’s Department. “My purpose is to make sure everyone is held accountable,” he said at the debate. “If people look at our audits from year to year, they will see that changes are being accomplished. We work for the public, not the big shots.”
Rhynhart, while insisting she would not shy away from confrontation when necessary, said she believes the job of Controller is also one of cooperation with city departments, to create a more efficient city government. “The job is to make sure taxpayers’ money is being spent well,” she said. “That would involve rooting out fraud, but also focusing on modernization. The auditor doesn’t need to come is as the enemy; the auditor can come in as an entity that wants to improve things.”
The back-and-forth included accusations of lying from both sides, of political insiderness, of inexperience, of willful misunderstanding of the law and scope of the job, and a choice line from Butkovitz that seemed to indicate what he thinks of Rhyhart’s approach: “You can’t be docile and do this job.”
“Docile?” Rhynhart retorted. “I don’t think that’s ever a word that’s been used to describe me.”
The debate was a relief in an election in which we rarely see no holds barred interactions between our candidates. Sure, we’re inundated with campaign mailers, and we can’t travel a mile without seeing three different billboards for district attorney candidates. But we’re kind of asked to take on faith the substance of these candidates’ characters. And when the gloves are off, there’s this fascinating, asymmetrical reversal to it all.
Rhynhart’s campaign would have you believe that she is the brash upstart, flouting the system with fresh new ideas; Butkovitz’s campaign would have you believe that he’s the immovable object elder statesman, a nearly non-partisan, favor-neutral candidate. With a little wheedling and a little more moderated name-calling, the crowd was able to get the facts straight. In fact, it was Butkovitz going whole-hog, like a rookie with nothing to lose, tearing into Rhynhart for her establishment bona fides and innovation-negative pitches to fix the system. Likewise, it was Rhynhart who came across as the adult in the room, the prim moderate parrying blows from a scrambling foe.
But the most striking aspect of the debate between two Democratic candidates who both are qualified for the job of City Controller was what they presented to voters: A stark choice.
Do you want an old-style in-your-face anti-corruption crusader who boasts of things like the bodyguards he needed to keep himself from being shot when he investigated Green? (Disbelieving chuckles from the crowd.) Then Butkovitz is your choice.
Do you want someone who thinks collaboration, transparency and modernization are the ways to ensure taxpayer money is well-spent? Then Rhynhart gets your vote.
Either way, the real winner of the primary race next Tuesday is, more than anyone else, the Philadelphia voter. As we’ve noted before, choice in elections keeps them interesting, and interesting elections bring people out to the polls. (Where, on May 16th, they might win $5,000 in The Citizen Voter Lottery.) Elections with real choices make people think about what they want from their government, and take steps to achieve it. Choice means our elected officials have to pay attention to the voters, or they won’t be our elected officials anymore.
This is what we get nationally: The choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a fairly stark one. Not only did the race bring people out to the polls (relatively anyway), it engendered a national conversation about who we are as a country, what we aspire to, and who we are okay leaving behind. Those are hard choices; the result, in many ways, was unpleasant. But it was a choice we made as a citizenry, because we had a choice.
Contrast that with, let’s say, North Korea on the Delaware, i.e. Philadelphia in 2014, when the as-it-turns-out corrupt Congressman Chakah Fattah was reelected with 100 percent of the vote. Or the 2015 primary race in which Council President Darrell Clarke won 99.84 percent of the vote. Or the other six district Council members who also ran, and won, unopposed in their races later that year. Are we really saying that we think all of these people are doing such a bang-up job that we don’t need to consider anyone new? Fattah proves the lie in that.
Of the primary races on the ballot next Tuesday, several are contested, most notably the seven-way Democratic race for District Attorney. But as Citizen editor Larry Platt noted yesterday, the choice is less stark than you’d think, given the number of candidates. The other races—for local and state judges—warrant barely a blip on the radar for most voters. Which is a shame, since the Democratic race for Common Pleas Court Judge, in particular, has a lot of people to choose from. (Republicans are out of luck; they should do something about that.)
Choices, like the one we have for controller, require a few things: People to run for office, like Rhynhart, who resigned from Mayor Kenney’s administration to take on Butkovitz. Party machines that get out of the way when newcomers with new ideas step up. An election system that isn’t based on paying ward leaders to get out the vote (which benefits incumbents and party favorites).
It also requires voting. Because that is, after all, the ultimate act of choice.
With contribution by Quinn O’Callaghan.Header photo by Pat Christmas for Committee of Seventy