How Rebecca Rhynhart Defeated Philadelphia’s Democratic Machine

The inside story of her upset victory over City Controller Alan Butkovitz. Spoiler: It wasn’t just the millennial vote surge.

City Controller candidate Rebecca Rhynhart | Photo courtesy of Rhynhart’s campaign

In the wake of Philadelphia’s paradigm-shifting primary, the district attorney election has gotten far more attention than any other race. But the results of the city controller face-off were far more surprising — and arguably more emblematic of the weaknesses of Philly’s Democratic machine — than the DA’s election.

Rebecca Rhynhart, a top financial aide for two mayors and a former Wall Streeter, won the controller’s Democratic primary in a landslide, defeating three-term incumbent and party favorite Alan Butkovitz by 17 percentage points. Unlike the winner of the Democrats’ district attorney election, progressive Larry Krasner, Rhynhart did not have the benefit of an independent political action committee with $1.45 million in the bank. Nor did she enjoy Krasner’s diehard fans or his ability to capture the imagination of the national media. Rhynhart was also competing on the Democratic Party’s home turf: She challenged a longtime politician in an off-year election. These races are typically won by party-endorsed candidates, in part, because so few voters cast ballots in them.

So how did Rhynhart pull off her upset victory? The election was a perfect storm, say campaign staffers, party insiders and other political observers — and it holds key lessons for future outsider candidates.

A Chance of “No Better Than One in Three”

When Rhynhart announced last year that she was running for city controller, her campaign strategist was not all that optimistic.

“I told her the odds of winning were no better than one in three,” said J.J. Balaban.

Rhynhart, who is 42, had never run for office before. Or raised money. Or worked on a campaign. Butkovitz, on the other hand, was a consummate politician, former state representative and Democratic Party ward leader to boot. “He had never lost an election” for controller, said Balaban.

To prepare for the rocky road ahead, Rhynhart’s team members put together a simple yet prescient campaign strategy: They would spend the vast majority of their money on TV advertisements, with the rest paying for staff members and a get-out-the-vote operation on Election Day. They’d purchase no direct mail or radio ads at all.

Butkovitz did the opposite. He chose to spend a little bit of money on everything: TV spots, direct mail, radio advertisements, a field operation, and support for the party’s ward leaders. An insider close to the Butkovitz campaign said this made perfect sense at the beginning of the race. “In a normal non-mayoral election year, those are effective ways to reach super voters.” But the insider says now it wasn’t the right choice in a primary that attracted many more independent-minded Democrats than usual: “In 2017, when more than half of the electorate is unknown [or] unpredictable, TV is the best way to reach those people.”

Rhynhart’s campaign strategy would have all been for naught if she hadn’t been able to fund it, of course. But for a first-time candidate, she proved surprisingly good at raking in cash. In the city’s second fundraising cycle, Rhynhart brought in about $105,700, while Butkovitz collected only $51,000.

Balaban argues that Rhynhart did this by making a clever pitch to donors: “The amount of money she raised is not easy for a candidate who no one thought was going to win. The case I heard her make to donors was that the modern conservative party, particularly in the age of Trump, is making the case that government cannot work. And if [Democrats] are making the case that government can be something that helps people, then we are responsible for making it work, especially in our blue island in Philadelphia where Democrats win every election.”

Rhynhart’s fundraising efforts were also likely successful because she has relationships from her days working in City Hall and at Bear Stearns. Her donors included professionals in finance, law, real estate, and the tech industries.

“Alan Butkovitz, He Raised His Own Pay”

Butkovitz still had more money in the bank than Rhynhart in early May, however. But by sticking to her campaign strategy, Rhynhart was able to outspend him on television commercials. She paid $218,000 for TV ads, while Butkovitz invested just $82,000, according to the two campaigns. Rhynyart’s advertisements also aired first: They began eight days before Election Day, while Butkovitz’s started three days after hers.

Most of the political insiders interviewed for this article also believe that Rhynhart’s advertising campaign was better, including those who didn’t support her. The Campaign Group, a Neil Oxman-led company that created former Mayor Michael Nutter’s famously succesful ad in 2007, produced Rhynhart’s spot. It called Butkovitz a “political hack” who had “been running for office for 27 years,” while portraying her as a “qualified” financial expert and non-politician.

Butkovitz’s ad, on the other hand, repeated Rhynhart’s name in full — a questionable move for an incumbent whose opponent had low name recognition. Even more oddly, Butkovitz’s spot repeated the key criticisms lobbed against him in Rhynhart’s ad. “‘Alan Butkovitz, he raised his own pay.’ Seen this ad? It’s a big lie,” the narrator said.

Interestingly, the commercial’s description of Rhynhart as a Wall Street “insider” apparently didn’t catch on in an election largely decided by progressives voters. Perhaps left-wingers didn’t catch his ad, which aired far less frequently than Rhynhart’s.

Rhynhart’s Unusual Election-Day Strategy

On Election Day, Rhynhart’s team knew it couldn’t count on Democratic committeepeople to pass out what are known as “sample ballots” for her. These small pieces of paper, which are distributed at the polls, urge voters to support particular candidates. So Rhynhart’s team worked behind the scenes to ensure that four of the seven Democratic DA candidates promoted her on their sample ballots. This cost the campaign $15,000, according to Balaban.

Rhynhart said that the Laborers’ District Council was also key to her success: The union endorsed her and handed out pro-Rhynhart literature on Election Day, particularly in African-American neighborhoods. “The Laborers had a strong presence in West and North Philadelphia,” said Rhynhart campaign operative Kellan White, “which allowed us to concentrate our limited field resources in other parts of the city.”

Rhynhart was endorsed by former Gov. Ed Rendell, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity as well, which gave her underdog campaign a boost of credibility.

Butkovitz had won the support of the Black Clergy in the past — so why didn’t he this year? Maurice Floyd, a political strategist for Butkovitz, claims that it was due to a personal conflict. He said Rev. Jay Broadnax, president of the organization, “never liked Alan” and “never even called us to be interviewed.”

Broadnax denies that account: “That has nothing to do with it,” he said, adding, “We felt that we needed a fresh look at efficiencies that could be made in some of our city processes and we thought that she presented with the qualifications that could free up needed resources.”

Some political analysts think Rhynhart also got a bump partly because she is a female candidate and, particularly in the wake of the presidential election, liberals want to see more women in politics. Pennsylvania has fewer female leaders than many other states: There are currently no women in the Congressional delegation, and no woman has ever been elected governor here.

Women also appear to have made up the majority of the electorate in Philadelphia’s primary: 44 percent to men’s 31 percent. (The gender of 25 percent of voters on Election Day is unknown, according to the City Commissioner’s office.) Voter turnout among women grew by 90 percent since the 2013 primary; for men, it increased by 70 percent.

Asked if she agrees with this analysis, Rhynhart said, “Probably. I ran first and foremost on being the most qualified candidate … so I think there’s definitely women who felt, yes, I’m qualified and it would be great to have a woman in elected office.”

This May, Rhynhart wasn’t the only female candidate to defy the state’s trend: Two female Democrats captured the nomination for Commonwealth Court judge.

Rhynhart argues that, more than anything, she won the primary because she had the right platform: “I think that my message to people resonated — my message being that I am an independent, qualified financial voice that will be able to save money and put those dollars into the needs of communities. People are tired of government leaders that are making decisions for each other, for their friends, and not for people.”

Rhynhart will face Republican Mike Tomlinson, who worked as a corporate accountant for decades, in the general election. Because Democrats enjoy a 7-to-1 voter registration edge over Republicans in the city, Tomlinson has an uphill battle ahead.

Did Rhynhart Ride Krasner’s Coattails?

Of course, Butkovitz’s team sees things differently than the Rhynhart campaign.

Floyd, the Butkovitz political strategist, defends his little-bit-of-everything campaign strategy to this day: “We bought $37,000 worth of radio time that went up the same time she put up her TV ads. We did [$92,000 in] direct mail. … If TV worked as much as people think it did, what happened to Michael Untermeyer?”

(Untermeyer, a Democratic candidate for DA, finished in fifth place despite spending $1.25 million of his own money and airing TV ads before anyone else in the race.)

Floyd believes Rhynhart won largely because she rode on DA Democratic nominee Larry Krasner’s coattails. “I think it’s all the Krasner movement, which we got blindsided on,” said Floyd. “He had the army, the resources and the message that drove out new voters. He was the one who took her over the top, without question.”

Some women and Rhynhart fans have chafed at this characterization, pointing out that Rhynhart was the top vote-getter in the primary and outperformed Krasner by 19,571 votes. “Number one, it doesn’t make any sense,” said Alison Perelman, executive director of the anti-establishment, dark-money group Philadelphia 3.0. “Number two, it’s offensive.”

It does seem plausible, though, that Rhynhart shared many of the same voters as Krasner and Joe Khan, a progressive DA candidate who finished second. Rhynhart performed best in many of the same areas in Greater Center City, West Philly and the Northwest where Khan and Krasner did well.

“Progressives Came Out, and a Lot of the Working Class Stayed Home”

On Election Day, voter turnout shot up by 50 percent, in comparison with the last competitive DA’s race in 2009. There was a particularly massive increase in turnout among millennials. This could indicate that Krasner (and, to a lesser extent, Khan) brought out Democrats who don’t normally vote in odd-year elections — Democrats who are less influenced by ward leaders and therefore more open an anti-machine, relatively young candidate like Rhynhart.

“It’s the turnout that matters,” said Brett Mandel, who ran an anti-establishment campaign against Butkovitz four years ago. “In 2009 and 2013, there were 80,000-plus and 60,000-plus votes for controller. With so few, that’s not enough not-ward-influenced voters to win.” This year, there were more than 135,000 votes cast in the controller’s race.

Floyd also points out that many voters in Butkovitz’s base in his Northeast Philly stayed home. In some parts of Bridesburg, Frankford, and Somerton, voter turnout was only 9 percent, which is much lower than the citywide average of 17 percent. “A lot of progressives came out, and a lot of the working class stayed home,” said Floyd.

Floyd said he “doesn’t blame” Democratic ward leaders for Butkovitz’s loss. After all, only one appears to have abandoned him on Election Day. (That was Nutter, Rhynhart’s former boss and a longtime foe of Butkovitz’s. Rhynhart said his 52nd Ward distributed sample ballots in favor of her.) But there’s no denying that ward leaders were not able to get out the vote for Butkovitz — or their favorite DA candidates. For instance, only about 12 ward leaders backed Krasner, but he won the plurality of votes in 47 wards.

Likewise, electricians union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, who is a longtime ally of Butkovitz’s, failed to deliver on Election Day. Even in the 1st Ward, which was led by Doc until a few years ago, most voters cast a ballot for Rhynhart. Jack O’Neill, the DA candidate supported by both Dougherty and the current 1st Ward leader, won the plurality of votes in only two of the ward’s 21 polling places.

There is at least one thing that both fans of Butkovitz and Rhynhart agree on: Voters in May were in the mood for something different. The Democratic Party’s approval ratings are at a bargain-basement low, and some on the left are desperate for change after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. A tsunami of Philly Democrats have also been investigated by law enforcement officials in recent years.

“I think there’s kind of a wave here,” Butkovitz told the Inquirer. “People wanted a fresh look and new blood.”

Perelman is crossing her fingers that this trend encourages more outsider candidates to run for City Council and the state legislature over the next two years. In gentrifying areas that supported Krasner and Rhynhart, some anti-establishment liberals and progressives think incumbents could be especially vulnerable.

“I’m hearing that [potential candidates] are asking the question,” she said. “I would certainly hope the outcome of this is that credible candidates who have been unsure about running look at this election and really think there is a path to victory.”

Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.

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