Earlier this month, the Daily News published a short interview with Christy Brady. Brady, who has worked in City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s office for 23 years, recently became the first woman to take on the role of deputy controller, one of the most powerful positions in the office. So the news value was fairly straightforward.
Still, it’s not every day that one reads a newspaper article—by a columnist, no less—about a promotion within what has traditionally been regarded as one of the least exciting offices in the already unexciting world of municipal government. And the timing seemed somewhat … convenient. Butkovitz is currently facing a re-election challenge from Rebecca Rhynhart, the 42-year-old former budget director and chief administrative officer for the city, who is hoping to become the first woman elected as city controller of Philadelphia. So when I sat down with Butkovitz to talk about the race, I had to ask him whether he had pitched the idea and encouraged the writer to run the story.
Yes, he said.
“The fact that this is the first time in the history of the Controller's Office that a woman has advanced to actually what is the most powerful position of the office, I thought was newsworthy,” he said. “And the fact that it might be inconvenient for Rebecca was not a disincentive to me.”
Throughout his three terms as controller, Butkovitz, 64, has never hesitated to use a headline to his advantage. He has routinely held press conferences on every issue, from dysfunction at the Department of Licenses & Inspections to payroll abuse in the city’s mail room to the ways the city was preparing for Pope Francis’ visit in the fall of 2015. The habit became increasingly irritating to former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, and it is no secret that virtually the only thing Nutter and Butkovitz have in common is a mutual dislike.
But Butkovitz believes the press attention helps his office get results. And at the same time, he has used the policy division within his office – what he calls the “think tank” – in creative ways, like advocating for greater transparency in the use of tax subsidy programs at the city and state levels, which helped inspire legislation adopted by City Council last year.
“We have established an all-star team in the office and we’ve established credibility so that we get more efficient, quicker remedial action than when we started out,” Butkovitz said in a recent interview. “When I came into the Controller’s Office, they only did two performance audits a year. It would take 18 years to get back to the same department again. We instituted this quick revisit on high-priority items like L&I, so that we would come back in three months and six months – we would keep coming back until we hammered home the importance of reform and change. And we're now getting close to the 95 percent compliance rate that was our goal at the time that I took office.
“And at the same time that we’re performing all of those auditing functions, we’re leading the national debate on issues like retirement security as well as reduction of pension liabilities,” he added. He then touted the performance of his think tank, which he said “is pushing ideas like using the demand potential of Philadelphia’s ‘eds and meds’ – our anchor institutions – as the force to drive the creation and recruitment of entities that produce, manufacture things that are demand in this particular sector. Philadelphia is often treated as if it’s some kind of generic city, when, in fact, we’re a port city, we are a center of medical education, we’re a center of education generally. There are strategic things that, if focused on, give us a better shot to grow economically. And we are thought leaders in all of those areas.”
Butkovitz, who is from Northeast Philly, worked as a lawyer in Philadelphia before being elected to the state House of Representatives in the early 1990s. He served as a representative until 2005, and became City Controller in 2006. He has remained active in Democratic Party politics, and still holds the position as ward leader in the 54th Ward.
Asked to describe the role of the City Controller, Butkovitz broke it into three parts.
“First of all, we’re the local government-corruption catcher and fighter,” he said. “So we have to make sure people are not stealing or cheating or mismanaging or wasting. Secondly, we have certain statutory duties, such as our balance-of-power role on the pension board. And thirdly, we are the people who have the mission of considering the long-term financial well-being of Philadelphia.”
On the corruption front, Butkovitz says that the audit of the Sheriff’s Office begun during his last term became the foundation for a federal investigation. Former Sheriff John Green, who led the office when Butkovitz began the audit and resigned shortly thereafter, was charged with fraud in late 2015.
In terms of minding the financial health of the city, Butkovitz cited a 2014 report his office completed tracking the cost of Philadelphia’s Keystone Opportunity Zones – areas where certain taxes are waived in order to spur business development. That report questioned the efficacy of KOZs, and was the partial basis for a 2016 City Council bill that would require better reporting on jobs created by businesses that receive such tax breaks.
But in recent years, much of the press attention Butkovitz has gotten has been related to his criticism of former Mayor Michael Nutter, and vice versa. Last summer, months after Nutter had left office, Butkovitz held a press conference and issued a report highlighting what he said were improper transactions in the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, saying that Nutter’s team had used it as a “slush fund.” Nutter responded by calling Butkovitz a “liar, a snake, and a hypocrite,” and a top aide ended up suing the controller for defamation. That suit was thrown out by a judge this week.
The feud goes back years – you can check out some highlights/lowlights from Philly Voice here – but the antipathy wasn’t necessarily there from the outset of Nutter’s time as mayor. The evolution of the relationship also provides some interesting insight into Butkovitz’s approach to politics.
Butkovitz said recently that he had to be “extremely diplomatic” during Nutter’s honeymoon phase as mayor. Even in areas where he disagreed with Nutter early on, Butkovitz said, he chose to stay quiet.
“He came in and one of the first things he wanted to do was a pension obligation bond, which I thought would be disastrous,” Butkovitz said. “But I recognized that he was in high approval and, essentially, our approach to that was to voice our concerns about it and kind of let time show that we were right, which eventually happened.”
Why would it matter that time prove Butkovitz right? Why not just try to prevent the bad thing from happening?
“He was a virgin, and he had high hopes,” Butkovitz. “So we gave him the benefit of the doubt. As an evidentiary track developed, it became clear that the administration was not operational. They were experts on public relations, but none of the stuff was working the way they said.”
Things reached a sort of pinnacle just before the pope came to town.
“They (the Nutter administration) put out a notice that they were going to tow parked cars the Wednesday before, totally oblivious to the fact that it was Yom Kippur, and that people came down to go to synagogue,” Butkovitz said. “So we did an announcement, and frankly, I know that if I had called Nutter and said, ‘Do you know that you’re going to be towing cars on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year?’ he would have said, ‘What? You think you’re smarter than me?’ … OK, so we did a press conference. And then he sent a notice to the synagogues saying ‘We’re not going to tow your cars.’ And he’s like, ‘Gee, he didn’t have to do that.’ Well, frankly, he didn’t have to do what he did, which was every day, every 10 minutes, he had a press conference as if he was in control of something, giving people misinformation, creating panic, and there was this huge resistance in the city that couldn’t find voice.”
Nutter, after initially agreeing to discuss the controller’s race, did not respond to follow-up messages. At any rate, there is a new mayor in town. And while Jim Kenney has not had any major public fights with Butkovitz yet, he is still (sort of) in his honeymoon phase, leaving one to wonder just how long it will be before mayor and controller are in open disagreement again. On one hand, that type of discord is baked into the relationship between the two offices, no matter who occupies them. On the other, Butkovitz has a fairly well-developed sense of when to form allegiances with other politicians – and when to consider them his enemies.
Before the 2015 mayoral primary began in earnest, Butkovitz was considering putting his hat in the ring. But he was waiting to see whether City Council President Darrell Clarke would join the race. Eventually, Butkovitz determined that he had waited too long, and by the time Clarke said he wouldn’t run for mayor, Butkovitz felt it was too late. He ultimately decided to support Kenney. So far, he said, Kenney has been more open to criticism and suggestion than Nutter was.
“Kenney has surprised me, because he and I, we were rivals,” Butkovitz told me. “His background was that he’s a cranky, ornery guy, and when he was in City Council, he would denounce our audits on the same basis. If he liked somebody – I think it was in procurement, there was some department that we criticized, and he did a ringing defense of them on the floor and said that our audit wasn’t worth anything. I really expected more of the same. I think he has grown, matured emotionally through the process of being a mayoral candidate and having to grow into this position, and for as long as it lasts, he seems to be receptive and open to this. It’s also possible that it’s one of those things that has a limited shelf-life and then eventually we’ll get under his skin in a way that he gets pissed off.” (A spokesman for Kenney’s campaign committee said it was too early in the race for the mayor to announce an endorsement.)
If Butkovitz wins the primary – and, barring any major surprises, the Democrat wins the general election – he’ll be in office for at least 16 years, twice as long as any mayor and as long as the former controller, Jonathan Saidel.
In his last two re-election campaigns, Butkovitz’s primary challenger was a Democratic committeeman named Brett Mandel.
“Brett Mandel was an extremely vigorous opponent,” Butkovitz recalled. “I thought he was very nasty, but he was a political athlete, and he expressed his point of view very aggressively and very effectively. Rebecca Rhynhart’s position seems to be like she’s answering a newspaper ad for a job—‘Well, I went to college and I got this degree and I can do this.’”
Butkovitz maintains that Nutter recruited Rhynhart into the race after casting about for someone to challenge him. Butkovitz said he spoke with other politicians who had conversations with Nutter, and that Nutter was hoping to find a black woman to enter the race, although he wouldn’t name anyone with whom he had those conversations. (Though Nutter did comment to Billy Penn, with respect to the Controller’s Office: “We should be looking at the opportunity for a woman and someone who is younger in their chronological life and political life.”)
For her part, Rhynhart says it’s condescending for Butkovitz to suggest that she was put up to the challenge by Nutter. She notes that she’s worked in two administrations – including a top role in the Kenney administration – and that the decision to run for controller was hers alone.
Butkovitz also said that if Rhynhart were to become controller, she’d be in the position of having to review and audit decisions that she herself had made when she worked in the administration, which could present a conflict. Rhynhart responded that she would have no problem approaching the office as the independent entity it’s designed to be, and countered with a question of her own: Isn’t it a conflict for Butkovitz to be part of the political establishment he’s supposed to be watchdogging?
“Frankly, her critique seems to be not very well developed,” Butkovitz said. “There doesn't seem to be much of a theory to it, other than, ‘I’m new. I’ve got new ideas.’ Which, by the way, where are they, and why didn’t you do them? I just don't understand what the hell she’s doing.”