Philly controller’s race heats up at forum, barbs exchanged

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In a race that tends to be snoozer, Democratic candidates for City Controller Alan Butkovitz and Rebecca Rhynhart exploded in shouting matches during a live-streamed forum Tuesday night. 

“My opponent is so beholden to the political machine that he does not take the tough stances that I would make,” said Rhynhart, a former top aide to Mayor Kenney and Mayor Michael Nutter. It’s an arguments she has made of Butkovitz, a longtime ward leader, during the campaign. 

“You think it was easy going after Sheriff John Green? I had to be assigned security guards because they thought I might be assassinated for the amount of corruption we found in there,” said Butkovitz, who is running for a fourth four-year term, referring to an investigation his audit conducted of Green, who was later indicted and awaits trial. 

“I have the scars of fighting the political system for all the time I’ve been in office,” Butko said.

“You take things on when they are easy, not when they are difficult,” Rhynhart shot back. 

Tuesday’s 70-minute forum, held in an office building at 230 S. Broad St., was hosted by the Committee of Seventy and online publication the Philadelphia Citizen. About 100 people attended the event , which was live-streamed on Facebook. 

The forum was the last of two controller candidate debates held before the May 16 primary. The first one was held April 27th at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and included Republican Mike Tomlinson, who is running unopposed.

Among the various points of contention that came up Tuesday were the city’s expenses during the papal visit and the controller’s duty in auditing all city departments.

Butkovitz criticized Rhynhart for not standing her ground over the $8 million payment the city made to the World Meeting of Families following the 2015 papal visit. Rhynhart, who was budget director at the time, has said she does not think the city should’ve paid that money given the assurances made that taxpayers would not pay for the papal visit. Yet, the city paid the $8 million, which covered nearly half of the total costs for the event.

Rhynhart said that while she did protest the payment internally, it was Butkovitz who could’ve stopped the payment.

“Only one person could’ve stopped that payment and that’s my opponent. As controller he could’ve stopped the payment and he didn’t,” she said. “As city controller, I would’ve stopped that payment, yes, absolutely” she said.

Butkovitz shot back saying that “There are court cases … that made it clear that the controller is required to spend money where there are contracts executed.” 

Rhynhart said that she would find at least $10 million in savings each year by auditing every department, something she says Butkovitz does not do. He disagreed and said that his office audits every department. (During a previous debate, he brought copies of the audit reports for various years.)

The controller’s website lists the departmental audits. The most recent ones are from fiscal year 2015, which ended June 30, 2015.

Butkovitz also said that he too has averaged saving the city $10 million a year (in his 11 years, the city has implemented recommendations of his that led to $116 million in savings.)

On Tuesday, Rhyhart also announced that she is using $145,000 of her campaign funds to air a 30-second ad on various cable channels and broadcast networks. The ad, which started airing Monday, attacks her Butkovitz, calling him a “political hack” and tells voters change is needed and that they should vote for Rhynhart.

Butkovitz campaign aide Maurice Floyd said his candidate too will be going up on air, but it was not decided when. “We’re definitely going up,” Floyd said.

Television ads are is not common in controller’s races. The most recent TV campaign was Brett Mandel who ran against Butkovitz in the 2013 Democratic primary. Mandel said Tuesday that he spent about $60,000 four years ago on television ads. Butkovitz, who didn’t go on TV then, ultimately won the three-way Democratic race and the general election.

On Tuesday, Rhynhart’s campaign released the results of an internal poll that showed most voters are still undecided in the race. The poll conducted by Normington, Petts and Associates based in Washington only asked voters if they were voting for Rhynhart or Butkovitz or if they were undecided, Rhynhart campaign spokeswoman Anna Adams-Sarthou said. The poll showed that 26 percent of the 500 voters polled would vote for Butkovitz, while 23 percent would vote for Rhynhart and 51 percent were undecided.

The poll said the race is “wide open” and a “dead heat.”

Butkovitz said Tuesday that his campaign also did internal polling, on May 1-3.

The poll, conducted by SEA Polling and Strategic Design based in Florida, polled 500 Democratic registered voters and showed that if those polled were to vote that day, 32 percent would vote for Butkovitz, while 23 percent would vote for Rhynhart with 23 percent. The rest were undecided.

Butkovitz said both polls were good news for him. “Rebecca’s poll shows marked improvements in areas I used to struggle,” Butkovitz said, referencing the Center City demographic. “I really appreciate that and I’m excited.”

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