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Controllers Primary Pits Three-Term Incumbent Against Political Novice

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — For an office that sounds rather unexciting, the Philadelphia city controller’s race has managed to generate heated competition in the last few primaries. This year’s contest, which will be decided in the May 16th primary election, is perhaps a bit more genteel but just as fervently-fought, pitting three-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz against former city official Rebecca Rhynhart, making her first foray into elective politics.

Butkovitz has made a splash since taking office in 2006, conducting a forensic audit of the Sheriff’s office which he believes led to federal criminal charges that were later filed; a performance audit of the Fire Department that found slow response times which he blamed on the controversial and since-reversed policy of “brown outs” of certain stations; and recent investigations of spending at the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, uncovering thousands of dollars of questionable charges by the former chairwoman.

“We’ve become the lead anti-corruption agency in the city,” he says, adding, “We’re publishing reports that get national recognition, we get awards from the National Association of Auditors, one out of every two years that I’ve been controller. We’ve invented new kinds of auditing, we’re a very forward-looking policy think tank which has developed real solutions to pension under-funding and job growth for the hard-to-employ in Philadelphia.”

To Rhynhart, he dwells a bit much on the sensational.

“The way the incumbent does his job is very much focused on these ‘gotcha’ moments, these headlines and there’s a way to do the job in a much more collaborative manner that will actually yield much stronger results,” she says.

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At the same time, Rhynhart accuses him of not taking on some political fights:

“He hasn’t audited the Parking Authority since 2009. That’s a political call to not audit the Parking Authority and I would absolutely audit it. When the state took it over back in 2000, it estimated that about $40 Million a year would go to the school district and last year they got ten million. And that’s just not okay.”

Rhynhart, 42, has a daughter at the elementary school in her Center City neighborhood so, she says, she’s motivated to get every penny from the Authority.

Butkovitz scoffs that it’s a favorite target of what he calls “phony reformers.”

“It’s because they can’t find anything else in my record to attack,” he says.

Butkovitz has faced some nasty primaries in the past, twice going up against ward leader Brett Mandel. The two fought bitterly, openly hostile to each other in debates.

Rhynhart is a more measured opponent but just as intense, collecting endorsements from former Governor Ed Rendell the Laborers Union and several ward leaders.

She would be the first woman to hold the office.

She’d like to hold that honor but says, “first and foremost, I’m running on being the most qualified candidate.”

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Rhynhart, a native of Abington, left a job in finance to return to the city and work for the Nutter administration, first as Treasurer, then as budget director.

“I led the city to its highest bond rating in over 30 years so it lowers the city’s interest costs which is a really big accomplishment,” she says.

She stayed on with the Kenney administration as chief administrative officer and moved the procurement process online.

She favors yearly audits of every department “focusing on not just finding fraud but also finding ways to modernize to save money.”

Butkovitz, though, sees her as an agent of former Mayor Nutter, with whom he often locked horns.

“He doesn’t like it to be exposed that his people misused hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Fund for Philadelphia,” he says, “so he went out and got a candidate to run against me. I’m punished with opposition because I’m doing exactly what the watchdog is supposed to do which is protecting the taxpayers from powerful bullies.”

Rhynhart dismisses the claim.

“To say that another man pushed me to run is not only condescending, but also false,” she says. “I made the decision to run because I am well-qualified and because I want the job. If there’s any man who got me to run, it’s Alan Butkovitz himself because of the poor job he has done as controller.”

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