Rhynhart beats Butkovitz in controller’s race upset

City Controller Alan Butkovitz lost his bid for reelection Tuesday, falling in the Democratic primary in a major upset to Rebecca Rhynhart, a former aide to Mayor Kenney who pitched herself as the new blood needed in an office run by an political insider.

Butkovitz, a longtime ward leader and former state representative, had held the post as Philadelphia's fiscal watchdog for 12 years.

With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Rhynhart had outpaced Butkovitz by a 3-2 ratio. She will face Republican Michael Tomlinson, who was unopposed in his primary, in the November general election.

Butkovitz called Rhynhart, 42, to concede about 9:45 p.m. Rhynhart teared up slightly when she took the call. The supporters around her in Strangelove's, a Center City bar, fell silent, then erupted when she hung up.

"It feels very surreal," she told her supporters. "I didn't expect it to happen this early in the evening."

“Alan Butkovitz just called me to concede,” Rhynhart tweeted at 9:49 p.m. “I’m honored to be the Democratic nominee for controller of Philadelphia.”

Butkovitz, 65, reached shortly afterward, said he was surprised by the result. He said his defeat could have been caused by antiestablishment sentiments tied to the Trump presidency that likely also powered civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner's win in the Democratic primary for district attorney. 

"I think there's kind of a wave here," he said.

“People wanted a fresh look and new blood. People wanted change," he continued. "Even though I’m extremely proud of the job we’ve done in this office … I think the idea of constant renewal is a good thing."

The race pitted two different kinds of insiders against one another, and each used that as ammunition against the other.

 

Rhynhart pegged Butkovitz as a career politician, calling him a “political hack” unable to take tough positions against a Democratic establishment of which he was a part.

Butkovitz described Rhynhart as a city insider. Before working for Kenney, Rhynhart worked under former Mayor Michael A. Nutter for all of his eight years in office. Butkovitz said she would have a conflict in auditing the city departments she oversaw in those positions.

Rhynhart made a hard run for the office, launching a television ad (a rarity in a controller’s race). Butkovitz followed with his own. Though she cast herself a political outsider, Rhynhart also went to Democratic ward meetings, hoping to sway party support.

Polls from both campaigns last week showed more than half of voters undecided.

Rhynhart, after speaking with Butkovitz late Tuesday, said her message of modernizing city government and taking on "entrenched political interests" like the Philadelphia Parking Authority resonated with voters. 

"I'm not part of the political machine," she said. "I want to make tough calls, better financial calls. I think we can save a lot of money."

Kenney sent a statement congratulating Rhynhart, saying is she is "capable of making government more efficient and effective." He thanked Butkovitz and said, "There’s no question that Philadelphia is better off because of his leadership."

Butkovitz, who has said his work has led to the implementation of $115 million in savings for the city over 12 years, said Tuesday night he would spend the remainder of his time as controller finishing ongoing investigations or preparing for them to be handed off to his successor. Beyond that, he said, he would draw on his experience in governance and law. 

"You know, I’m sure I’ll find a way to put those talents to use," he said. "And I’m by no means done with politics."

Staff writer William Bender contributed to this article.