We Want Answers: How Rebecca Rhynhart Pulled Off the Political Upset of the Year

The Democratic nominee for controller knocked off three-term, party-backed incumbent Alan Butkovitz. Is it a sign of the ground shifting?

Rebecca Rhynhart. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

When Philadelphians went to the polls during last spring’s primary, most eyes were on the city’s highly competitive DA’s race, in which ultra-progressive Larry Krasner ultimately beat out six other candidates for the Democratic nomination to replace disgraced, convicted (and now jailed) Seth Williams. But Krasner’s win wasn’t the only big news on election night; maybe even more significant was Rebecca Rhynhart’s unexpected drubbing of three-term city controller Alan Butkovitz. The victory by Rhynhart, who worked on Wall Street before spending nine years in the Nutter and Kenney administrations, seemed to represent the kind of shift in citywide politics many people had been waiting a long time for — a quintessential “New Philadelphian” taking on, and defeating, the Democratic Party machine. The 42-year-old — who, like all Philly Dems, is favored to defeat her Republican opponent, Mike Tomlinson, in next month’s general election — sat down in her Market Street campaign office in late summer to talk about her primary win, the way government runs, and how big a change the local Democratic Party is in store for.

Going into the race, your campaign consultant, J.J. Balaban, said your chances of getting elected were one in three. And yet you won by 17 points against a machine-backed three-term incumbent. How do you explain what happened?

It really is amazing what happened. When J.J. said one in three, he actually told me those are good odds going against an incumbent. I said, “That doesn’t sound good to me, one in three. But you know what, I’m gonna go for it.” I think that people in the city are ready for change, and that my message resonated across the city. And I was able to get my message out — the message being that the city needs to work better. And that political leaders need to actually make decisions that help people and help businesses, and not just each other.

Were you surprised on election night?

The level of the win did surprise me a little bit. I felt good — I visited 18 or so voting places on Election Day, and the level of support from people in all different neighborhoods, whether it was Center City or Chestnut Hill or Southwest Philadelphia or North Philly, was really overwhelmingly positive. And people were so enthusiastic in all these different neighborhoods that I thought, you know what, I think I’m gonna win. I think this might happen.

These are pretty interesting times politically in the city. You won, Larry Krasner won, Seth Williams and Chaka Fattah are sitting in jail, there are questions about Bob Brady. Do you feel we’re at a turning point?

I sure hope so, and I think there is an opportunity for that, absolutely. The level of engagement is much higher than in the past.

You’ve said that Donald Trump’s election is one of the reasons you decided to run. Where were you on election night in November, and what do you remember about the evening?

I was actually just at home watching the returns, but it was a horrible feeling.

At what point did it dawn on you that Trump was going to win?

When several states that were supposed to go for Hillary were not coming in the way they were supposed to, I got this horrible feeling in my stomach. And the whole next day was just this sickening feeling. I was 98 percent sure I was gonna run at that point. I had been thinking about it in the fall, but at that point I just … it just pushed me over the edge. This is not okay. We have to stand up for government that works, and for the future of our country and our kids. And what better place to start than actually showing that our city government can work?

So it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision?

It was something that I had thought about. I worked for the city for nine years. I left the private sector in 2008, when I was working for Bear Stearns and came to work for the city and was Michael Nutter’s treasurer and then the budget director. And then I stayed on with Mayor Kenney for a year. I enjoyed the experience of working for both mayors and feel like I did a lot of positive things. But I also felt that there was so much lost opportunity. And a lot of the lost opportunity came because the elected leaders often enough didn’t take some tough stances.

Give me some examples.

I think the Parking Authority is a really clear example of that. The Parking Authority hasn’t been audited since 2009. It’s Republican-controlled, but the Democrats haven’t challenged it because they’ve gotten a share of the patronage jobs. It’s a status-quo thing. But the culture of sexual harassment and comp-time payouts shows mismanagement. The school district gets the excess money from the Parking Authority, and they’ve gotten much less — millions and millions less — than what they should be getting. So that’s an example. There are many other ones out there.

You were raised in Montgomery County. Were you interested in politics growing up?

I always liked politics. There were some political debates between my mom and stepfather growing up. They had very different political views.

In what way?

My mom’s more liberal. I definitely grew up with [politics] around me. I took some AP political science courses in high school, but then sort of got away from it a little bit. In college I was an environmental studies and English major, very liberal arts. Then I worked after college for a few years for Harcourt Brace as a textbook salesperson. I was a sales rep in Philly. But I thought, there’s more — I want to do more. I went to grad school three years out of college, at Columbia, for public administration. That’s when I really started making the decision that I wanted to help government. And then my private-sector experience really propelled me to work for government.

That’s pretty unusual.

I worked for Fitch Ratings for five years and then moved over to Bear Stearns. And I was a managing director there, dealing with municipal derivatives — trades that Bear Stearns did with governments across the country. I really learned there that governments did not make the best financial decisions. They didn’t understand, or have the financial expertise that Wall Street did. That’s not a big surprise, but the big surprise to me was how little governments did understand. And so that’s really what made me say, you know what? I don’t want to be on this side of it. I want to go work for government and be the financial voice to make government work.

You grew up in the suburbs, went to school at Middlebury and Columbia, worked for Bear Stearns. It’s not the traditional résumé of a Philly politician.

Right. [laughs]

Is it a problem in connecting with Philly voters?

I feel absolutely connected. The city needs to work for everyone. And one of the things I believe strongly is that to move our city forward, we need to help everyone. That means the government needs to operate more effectively, and millions of dollars can be saved to be put into the needs of the community. I said on the campaign trail — at least $10 million a year.

Looking back on your years with the Nutter administration, what are you most proud of? And what could have been done differently?

As budget director, I led the budget-balancing out of the recession. So I’m proud of the fact that we made it through that recession and actually got upgraded by S&P to the highest rating the city’s had in 30 years. And they credited the financial management of that recovery, and I’m proud of that. One thing I realized from several years of balancing the budget … it’s not just about adding or subtracting money. The city needs to operate better. It needs to modernize. There are so many paper forms — still — and typewriters being used for forms.

I’m pretty sure the average person doesn’t even understand what the city controller does. How do you explain it to voters in 30 seconds?

The city controller is the financial watchdog. It’s independent from the mayor, separately elected. It’s the auditor of the city and the school district, and under the charter it’s responsible for making sure that the city operates efficiently and effectively. But I agree with you; most people do not know. One of the things I stress on the campaign trail is that the reason the controller is relevant to people’s lives is that through using the audit function to drive toward best practices and modernization, and by saving at least $10 million per year, we can make an impact on people’s lives, either with better services or by not raising taxes. Those are things that matter.

How would you be different from Alan Butkovitz?

I think my style will be different. I work collaboratively. For example, say certain audit findings are about to come out that say this department is wasting $15 million per year. I could put a call in to the Mayor’s Office and say, “Hey, this is what’s gonna come out. If you want to address the problem and come up with a timeline for addressing it, you can share the press conference.” And we can announce it together — the problem and the proposed solution. And that collaboration will go a long way, instead of the sort of “gotcha” press conferences where the department and the administration are scurrying to do a PR job to cover a problem up or just to recover, rather than actually solving it. The other thing I think is very important is transparency and releasing of information and accountability. So I plan to hold departments and the administration accountable three months out, six months out: How is the department doing?

You worked for Jim Kenney. Can you really be independent?

Look, I worked for him. I have a good relationship with him. But at the same time, I decided to resign to run for office to have independence from him, and from any mayor. I don’t think anyone who knows me thinks I have any difficulty in speaking my mind.

You said that political leadership in Philadelphia has failed. Why is that? What’s wrong with our political culture?

We’re a one-party town, pretty much, and I think that just lays the groundwork for a business-as-usual approach. That’s just my personal opinion. Look, I went against the machine, I went against the local party, even though I believe strongly in the Democratic Party. We just need more people to do that and it will change.

Would it help if there were actually a viable Republican Party?

Honestly, what I think we need are good Democrats. We need to change the local party in Philly. There’s the culture of corruption that we’ve seen way too much of. We need government that represents us. I plan to work closely with business leaders of this city. I think that’s an untapped resource — using the knowledge of business executives in the city to make changes and improvements in the city government, as well as just to be a partner with business. Businesses create jobs. We need jobs to lift people out of poverty.

When you worked for Mayor Kenney, you were criticized by City Council for the lack of diversity in some of the departments you oversaw. What’s your response to that?

The departments I oversaw had the same diversity problem as the administration overall. And it’s a problem. The city workforce should look like and be more representative of the community. One of the things I did working for Mayor Kenney was to establish best practices in diverse hiring and sort of lay out a framework for better recruitment, better outreach, to get diverse candidates so that the workforce becomes more diverse. I plan to definitely emphasize that within the controller’s office and also as part of the auditing and best practices reviews for the departments. Too often, people are hired because they know people. And that’s not the best thing for the city.

Speaking of diversity: When it comes to political power, Philadelphia has traditionally had way too few women.

Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. It’s hard to say why. The power structure has historically been white male, and I think we just need to work on changing that and get more voices at the table. For a lot of different jobs, it’s really important for women to run. The state legislature is about 18 percent women. And of the 20 people who are sent to the U.S. Congress from Pennsylvania, zero are women.

You talk about change and about needing better Democrats. Given all that, is it time for Bob Brady not to be in charge anymore?

To me … what I want to focus on is to move the party forward. And I think that … and I don’t think that needs to … I guess what I’m saying is that I see a path to moving the city forward and moving the party forward. And I think that through collaboration, we can do that. To me, it’s not about one person. It’s about the whole culture and organization. Change will happen when more people like myself come up to run and establish a culture change, rather than by focusing on one person.

What kinds of conversations have you had with Brady since the primary?

I’ve had good conversations with him. Look, I want to have as inclusive a base as possible. I had a conversation with him during the primary. And I said, I know you’re not supporting me, but if I win, I want to work with you. I care about the party.

But don’t you feel like he’s an impediment to change?

I feel that there is a path of change that doesn’t involve focusing on one person being the answer or the problem. In some ways, it’s almost easier to focus on one individual, rather than to say, no no no, we need people to step up, we need a culture change. We need a whole new group of people to run and create an option. So to me, that’s more of what I think needs to happen. And that’s what I want to lead and be a part of, to show that, look, Philadelphia can actually have government that works.

Published as “Not Alan Butkovitz” in the October 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.