Will tech's candidate Rebecca Rhynhart challenge Philly's powerful?

Controller Alan Butkovitz, right, and Democratic opponent Rebecca Rhynhart, left, during their debate on May 9, 2017. Moderator Chris Satullo is center.

Rebecca Rhynhart made it to Philadelphia in 2008 from the shipwreck of Bear Stearns & Co., which sank in the mortgage crisis.

I asked her then if the city's treasurer job was just a refuge until Wall Street recovered. She said she liked public service and wanted to keep at it.

Last Tuesday, the city's next-generation tech and investor elite helped sweep Rhynhart closer to a more visible job. The top vote-getter among the one-sixth of voters who voted in the primary, Rhynhart unseated 12-year controller Alan Butkovitz, who had long annoyed Rhynhart's ex-boss, former Mayor Michael A. Nutter. Rhynhart, 42, will face Republican Michael Tomlinson in the November general election.

"I am delighted," said Rhynhart's finance chair, Richard Vague, the digital-marketing mogul turned investor-philanthropist.

It's not just "her sophisticated financial knowledge," which marks a big change from what has in the past been a job for ward leaders, Vague told me.

It's the "inspiring, Frank Capra-esque way" that Rhynhart shows "she cares about the city. A rare combination, in my experience." Capra directed It's a Wonderful Life and other films about solid citizens who challenged corrupt elites and made life better for others. 

Ms. Rhynhart Checks Your Data

 "She reached out for help from the tech community. She asked, 'If we're going to modernize government, what are the things we should be thinking about?" said Bob Moul, serial software CEO, currently of Cloudamize and past head of Philly Startup Leaders. "The fact someone in city government actually wanted our input, that impressed me." 

In 2013, Moul joined Rhynhart, Comcast's David L. Cohen and other city finance and business leaders for a closed-door conclave with bond investors, to show that the Nutter administration was keen to balance spending and taxes, and deserved cheaper borrowing rates. 

After Rhynhart left her customized chief administrative officer job under Mayor Kenney to challenge Butkovitz, Moul hosted his first-ever political fund-raiser, for her. So many other tech chiefs and investors led their own Rhynhart events -- Andy Newcomb (MissionOG), Chris Cera (Arcweb), and Chris Alfano (Jarvus, DevNuts) -- that Moul joked about tech donor fatigue.

"All the parents in my demographic here in Center City know Rebecca, know her kids from school, and started talking about the controller's race for one reason -- because of what she brought to it,"  said Mark Naples, a partner in Wit Strategy, the national digital-media consultants. That included a promise to press the "corrupt" Philadelphia Parking Authority to fund city schools, as it's supposed to. 

While Nutter and Kenney have praised the tech community at events and offered subsidy programs, many tech leaders are more interested in basic government competence. "I'd much rather they fixed Third Street permanently," Darren Hill, boss of WebLinc, one of Center City's largest software-based companies, told me last winter. "Clean the streets a little better."

But Moul sees in Rhynhart's victory "a rising groundswell of people saying they are not happy with politics as usual. She represented a fresh face.  Progressive. People rallied to her." 

He's enthusiastic that Rhynhart will take seriously "the controller's duty to audit departments once annually. She stood out because she said, 'I'm actually going to do the job.' "

Her first priority, she said, is to order an independent audit of the Controller’s Office. She also vowed to quickly launch an audit of the Parking Authority. 

Wait a minute, I told Moul. If Rhynhart is serious about auditing city agencies, won't that mean open conflict with entrenched politicians and those business leaders who benefit from the way things have worked? 

Larry Krasner, the Democrats' district attorney nominee, has found his aggressive reform promises treated as threats by police union leaders, veteran prosecutors, and law-and-order voters. Won't Rhynhart  face similar pushback?

Moul, who unsuccessfully backed Rich Negrin against Krasner, notes that Rhynhart won cooperation from Nutter and Kenney while arguing for better practices.

If elected, she faces new challenges. Her campaigns and conflicts will be far more public, for her fans and her targets.