Rebecca Rhynhart, a top appointed official in two mayoral administrations with no previous experience as a political candidate, won election as city controller Tuesday, giving her a powerful platform to influence Philadelphia’s fiscal management.
Rhynhart, a Democrat, was leading Republican Mike Tomlinson by a better than 4-1 ratio when the Associated Press called her the winner at about 9:15 p.m.
“This is just the beginning. We are going to lead a quiet and peaceful revolution in Philadelphia’s political establishment,” Rhynhart told cheering supporters in a back room of the Continental Midtown Restaurant.
For decades, Democratic insiders have held the post, but Rhynhart broke the trend when she handily beat three-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz in the primary.
“What my win showed is that the majority of people in the city want change and want change to the political establishment and want new political voices to be heard,” Rhynhart said in an interview after her victory speech.
Auditing city government expenditures is the job of the controller, according to the City Charter. Rhynhart has vowed to find $10 million in annual savings by auditing all 42 city departments more quickly. She also has criticized the city pension fund for losing $149 million in 2016. With an automatic seat on the Board of Pensions, she said she will help guide the city to better investments.
Rhynhart, 43, grew up in Abington and graduated from Middlebury College and Columbia University. She worked in New York as a credit analyst before coming to Philadelphia in 2008 to serve as city treasurer under Mayor Michael A. Nutter. From there she rose to budget director. When Mayor Kenney came into office, he named her chief administrative officer with oversight over 10 key departments, including procurement, information technology, and human resources.
After six months on the Kenney team, Rhynhart quit to run for controller.
Rhynhart’s candidacy came at the right time and right place. Philadelphians were looking for change, and despite her work in City Hall, Rhynhart was seen as the outsider. She rode the wave of change that also pushed Larry Krasner’s run for district attorney.
The former budget director and chief operating officer worked the phones to get campaign donations from anyone who would listen to her in the primary. She outraised Butkovitz by 2-1 in the last two months of the primary campaign, allowing her to advertise on TV early.
She continued to fund-raise during the general election. This time, she received support from the usual Democratic sources — labor unions, big law firms, and political insiders, including Kenney.
Tomlinson, a 60-year-old accountant from the Northeast, was not able to finance a vigorous campaign and didn’t pose much of a threat in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1.