After 12 years as controller, Alan Butkovitz eyes mayor's office

It was as if Alan Butkovitz had rehearsed the line many times.

Seconds earlier, the outgoing city controller had been cracking a joke about the response he expects to get after issuing one of his last critical audit reports. Asked about what his plans are once he leaves office, he abruptly stops laughing, straightens up in his seat, and places his forearms on the conference table.

He’ll take some time off, he says, and “see what comes.”

Then, the pivot: “I think a number of the issues we are talking with regards to the schools and the future of the city are important, and they need to be aggressively pursued — from whatever position.”

After 12 years in an office he almost seemed to stumble into, and one he shaped as his own, Butkovitz got unexpectedly shoved out this year from within his own party. But at age 65, he’s not riding off into retirement.

Butkovitz wants to be mayor.

He won’t say it outright, and is far from officially declaring a challenge to Mayor Kenney in 2019.

But he’s been eyeing the mayor’s seat since 2014 – even hiring consultants for a 2015 bid he never launched — and the campaign-like answers he gives in a nearly two-hour interview this month leave little doubt. He says he has been a “rebel” against the Democratic party. He says the city’s financial situation is “worrisome.” He finds a way, in a bit of intra-party blasphemy, to compare Kenney to President Trump.

“The city’s position on the real estate tax versus the wage tax is the same as the Trump and Paul Ryan position on federal taxes,” he says, growing more frustrated with every word. “The tax cuts will go to people at the top, and the people that are going to have the tax increases will be lower in the income ladder. And that’s the same thing we are doing locally.”

Such a bold poke-in-the-eye against a generally popular incumbent from your own party runs against the grain of city politics.

But Butkovitz has never quite followed the usual script.

After losing his state representative races in 1976 and 1982, the Temple grad and Wynnefield native figured he wasn’t cut out for elected office. So he helped other campaigns. Then, in 1990, the seat representing the 174th District in Philadelphia’s Northeast suddenly opened up.

“I was the lawyer for the ward, and I was connected to most of the decision-makers,” Butkovitz recalled. “All of a sudden the gates opened and what I thought would never be available was — I was practically thrust into it.”

In his first year, he worked to repeal an income-tax exemption that had the support of most Democrats, a move that left him on shaky ground with his own party. After failing to get a leadership post in Harrisburg, Butkovitz started looking for his next gig.

In 2004, he had been raising money for a possible state auditor general campaign when then-City Controller Jonathan Saidel decided against a reelection bid. With $270,000 already in his campaign coffers — and no standout competition — Butkovitz easily won the job, taking on an office that now has a $9 million budget and 140 employees.

In his three terms as controller, he relished the chance to portray himself as the watchdog for City Hall finances and operations. He liked the power, maybe even the fights, so much so that the oft-staid Mayor Nutter once accused Butkovitz of having a “narcissistic personality disorder that seems to compel the need for constant public attention.” (Butkovitz countered that Nutter would issue such insults when Nutter was trying to hide something.)

His first year brought a public battle with Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas over how the school district was managing hundreds of millions of dollars. Butkovitz declared it his first real test, “my Bay of Pigs.”

In time, Butkovitz raised the office’s profile with frequent news conferences — whether criticizing a department’s misuse of money or offering policy ideas to improve a sliver of city government. He moved from a mostly routine departmental audit operation checking on petty cash to issuing performance audits that looked at what departments did with public funds.

His audits discovered that many police cameras weren’t working, that rescue squad cars were late 40 percent of the time, and that the Department of Licenses and Inspections simply wasn’t doing its job to keep the public safe.

The reports usually were followed by rebuttals and criticism from the Nutter administration. Not all facts were there, officials would say. Or they were already addressing the situation, the administration contended.

The clashes infuriated both office-holders and made for a toxic relationship.

After Butkovitz released a report last year that said Nutter aide Desiree Peterkin Bell had used the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund as a “slush fund,” Nutter countered with his own statement calling Butkovitz “a snake, a liar, and a hypocrite.”

(The dispute still lives: An investigation into the fund by the Attorney General’s Office is still pending.)

Still, Butkovitz has struggled to be taken seriously by government officials, some who saw him as reactive and playing politics, and by political insiders who thought he was always looking for the next best thing.

Despite having the establishment’s support, he lost this spring’s Democratic primary to Rebecca Rhynhart, a political novice who worked under Nutter and Kenney. Local Democratic Party boss U.S. Rep. Bob Brady said Butkovitz’s ambitions might have cost him reelection.

“Everyone knew he had intentions to run for mayor and figured he didn’t want to be controller,” Brady said.

Butkovitz has a different opinion: He thinks ward leaders and other supporters assumed he was safe in the primary and focused instead on the controversial district attorney’s race, leaving him vulnerable.

Now he is poised to clash with someone else in his own party: the mayor.

When Kenney came into office in 2016, Butkovitz hardly criticized the new mayor.

That changed in Year Two of the Kenney administration, notably when Butkovitz started attacking Kenney’s signature policy — a tax on sugary beverages to pay for universal prekindergarten and the revamp of many of the city’s parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

The Kenney administration has aimed to discredit Butkovitz’s criticism by saying he simply wants the beverage industry’s backing for whatever his political future holds.

As Butkovitz tried to link Kenney to Trump, the mayor’s spokeswoman fired back by likening the controller to another controversial office-holder: Frank Rizzo.

“The controller’s suggested tax policy sounds an awful lot like Philadelphia in the age of Rizzo, with a ballooning wage tax that created economic problems for the city for decades,” spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Friday. “It’s clear the controller’s grasp of economics and tax policy is weak at best, which is why voters rejected him by an unprecedented margin.”

The constant clashes with mayors are an “inherent” part of the job, Butkovitz said. He can’t say he didn’t enjoy them. And if luck again turns his way, maybe he’ll learn what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a controller’s attack.

So, will there be a mayoral campaign? Butkovitz laughs. One point is undeniable, he says: He will not be running “for anything but mayor.”