Philadelphia Mayoral Candidate Guide: Rebecca Rhynhart
This profile of Rebecca Rhynhart is part of our Ultimate Voter’s Guide to the 2023 Philadelphia Mayoral Race. For the full guide and to read more profiles, go here.
If there’s a human app for that, Rebecca Rhynhart, 48, would be it. As the first woman ever elected City Controller in Philadelphia (and a woman who in 2017 beat a three-term incumbent to boot, shaking up the Democratic establishment), she has transformed the office into the ultimate troubleshooting operation and zeroed in on some of the city’s biggest issues: lack of transparency in the police budget, excessive spending in City Hall, a missing $33 million from the city’s coffers, insufficient diversity in the city labor force, and more.
Given that she previously worked in the administrations of both Michael Nutter and Jim Kenney, one might have expected her to be cozier with the powers that be. But as Controller, she was anything but a pushover and thus can honestly make the case for herself as a watchdog, someone who is in the government — well-versed in the issues and the budget — but not of the government. “She understands how the city works,” says Larry Ceisler, longtime Philly political analyst and founder of public affairs strategy firm Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, “because she has seen it from both the inside and the outside.” (Rhynhart worked on Wall Street in public financing before serving as budget director under Mayor Nutter.) Moreover, Rhynhart says, “I have pragmatic solutions to the problems we face, because I spent my tenure as Controller examining the issues and making recommendations to solve them.”
Indeed, she’s earned a reputation as “a policy wonk focused on making government smarter and more efficient,” senior principal of public strategies for Cozen O’Connor Joseph Hill says. Whether that’s actually enough to reach a wide constituency remains to be seen. “Rebecca Rhynhart isn’t well-known throughout the city,” Hill says. “And it’s possible her more bookish approach won’t land with voters outside of Chestnut Hill, Center City and downtown-adjacent.”
Candidate Crib Sheet
- Reformer bona fides mixed with finance-background skills.
- A record for spotting waste. She’s shined light on hot-button issues like police budget woes, trash collection, and gun-violence reduction plans. For starters.
- Like Domb and Gym, she’s won citywide elections.
- Bombshell reports exposing police department budget spending, the city’s poor response to Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and Philly Fighting COVID’s horrible vaccination rollout.
- Found $33 million the city “lost” in sloppy accounting.
- Six years as one of Mayor Kenney’s most persistent agitators.
- Name recognition. Less than two terms in a non-legislative role and a relatively quiet demeanor — more than one insider noted a lack of charisma and visible passion — don’t help in this race.
- “She was Controller,” says Joann Bell, director of the Philadelphia Government Office of lobbying firm Pugliese Associates. “That’s an auditing process. Her heart was in the right direction in audits. That does not make you mayoral material. She hasn’t exhibited the strength needed to be in office.”
Former Philadelphia mayors Michael Nutter, Ed Rendell, and John Street; Dem Wards 5, 8, 9, 15 and 30; The Philadelphia Inquirer; Temple University Democrats; 5th Square, which also endorsed Helen Gym
Three Big Questions
Who and what is holding Philly back right now, and what will you do about it?
RHYNHART: I believe what holds our city back right now, our greatest obstacle to progress, is the entrenchment of our politics — a culture that has been in place for a long time. The need for independent leadership has never been more important. It’s why I ran for Controller in 2017 after nine years working in city government, and it’s why I’m running for mayor now. As Controller, I put forth thoughtful solutions to fix the city’s issues — but that’s where the power of my office ended. As mayor, I can and will make these changes happen.
Philadelphia is a great city, but to reach our full potential, we need a leader with the courage to move us beyond the status quo — who will stand up for what’s right no matter the obstacles and political cost.
What is your number one priority as mayor?
To make our city safer for all of our residents. Philadelphia is experiencing some of the highest levels of gun violence in recent history. This is unacceptable, and we must approach this crisis with evidence-based solutions that halt the violence in the short term as well as address the long-term root causes of the problem.
I will, on day one, declare a crime emergency, opening the emergency operations center to coordinate the response from city departments, so that all departments are laser-focused on helping get the violence down. In the short term, we need to invest in the programs that have proven by other cities to be effective in stopping gun violence within a year.
Over the long term — to address this crisis at its root — we need to invest in our neighborhoods that have been long neglected due to a history of racist government policies. We must improve our schools, provide job training, and cultivate strong communities in every corner of our city by cleaning the streets and making sure our public libraries and recreation centers offer accessible hours and robust programming. Data tells us that gun violence is a racial justice issue, and we must treat it as such by taking a holistic view as we address the factors that contribute to it.
How do you bring people/power in this city together and build consensus in order to get things done?
I firmly believe that people need to be front and center of how we govern. Data is crucial to how we evaluate problems and target our responses to find solutions that work, and I’ve used data as the City Controller over the last five years. But I also know that one of the most important components of how we navigate the complex problems our city faces is connecting with stakeholders, community leaders, and those directly impacted by the issues we seek to solve. After all, even as mayor, no one person can solve challenges as big as ours, and we must be able to move forward together to make our goals a reality. My track record in public service demonstrates my understanding of this, and it’s one I would build upon as mayor.
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Published as “Rebecca Rhynhart: The Troubleshooter” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.