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City controller race heats up with TV ad

Challenger Brett Mandel tries to tie incumbent Alan Butkovitz to School District money woes.

Art for Friday, May 10 Clout column -- screen grab of Brett Mandel's campaign commerical slamming City Controller Alan Butkovitz
Art for Friday, May 10 Clout column -- screen grab of Brett Mandel's campaign commerical slamming City Controller Alan ButkovitzRead more

IT IS RARE for a city controller's race to feature a television ad.

But Brett Mandel was looking for attention. And he got it.

A group of 19 politically active people, calling themselves an "ad hoc group of Philadelphia progressives," demanded yesterday that Mandel withdraw his "misleading TV commercial."

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers called Mandel's commercial a "distortion" of the record of City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who is seeking a third term.

The 30-second ad, running on cable channels in Philadelphia, starts with this question:

"Is City Controller Alan Butkovitz to blame for Philadelphia's school funding mess?"

Butkovitz, like controllers for the last six decades, had some employees paid by the School District because his office is responsible for some audits there.

He used that option to pay six politically active employees, including his campaign treasurer, a combined salary of $364,666. Being on the district's payroll allowed those employees to remain politically active.

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics, responding to a complaint, in March 2012 released an opinion from the city solicitor that said those employees should be held to the same prohibitions on political activity as other city workers.

A month later, Butkovitz had Mayor Nutter's administration move those salaries from the district's books to the city's books.

Mandel's commercial notes that Butkovitz's employees were being paid by the district while it was running up a deficit that now stands at $300 million.

Mandel defends his ad, saying the payroll money could have been used to pay teachers.

Mandel, who served as director of financial and policy analysis when Jonathan Saidel was controller, said he objected then to the use of district money to pay some of Saidel's employees. He just never did so publicly.

"Saidel was the boss," Mandel said. "Saidel made the rules."

Butkovitz said his campaign's research shows Mandel spent $24,000 to run the commercial for one week. He expects Mandel to run it again next week.

Mandel declined to discuss the cost or duration of the TV ad.

"Brett is advertising on cable at a minuscule buy for two weeks, just to say he was on television," Butkovitz said.

Is that a dog whistle?

Is state Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia blowing a political dog whistle to question the viability of U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor?

Stack, who tells us he is a few weeks to a month out from deciding whether to enter that race, sent a letter two weeks ago to ward leaders, union leaders and elected officials in Philly.

Stack, while pitching himself as an ideal candidate, said the party should nominate someone "free of any baggage that would make them unappealing to voters in broad areas of the state."

Was that a reference to Schwartz, who helped found and run a health-care clinic in Philly that performed abortions?

"As I've gone across the state, and I've been out there extensively, some folks in other parts of the state are bringing that up," Stack said. "I have not done anything to bring it up or tried to inflame it."

Schwartz's campaign declined to comment on Stack's letter.

Stack won his Senate seat in 2000 with significant help from former state Sen. Vince Fumo, who is due to be released from federal prison in February after serving time on corruption charges.

A Broad St. tea party

Tea Party protesters will rally Wednesday morning outside the Comcast shareholders meeting at the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street, but not in the numbers tossed around in the media this week.

The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday reported that FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit that recruits Tea Party activists, invited 60,000 people to protest against partisan political content on Comcast's MSNBC.

That 60,000 number was quickly picked up by bloggers.

Anastasia Przybylski, a Bucks County Tea Party founder and Pennsylvania field director for FreedomWorks, said she expects "a few dozen" to attend the rally. She notes that it starts at 8 a.m. on a weekday, not an easy time for people to show up.

Przybylski said the problem of partisan bias also occurs on Fox News, but she considers MSNBC to be completely supportive of President Obama's political agenda.

"I think there's a lot of media bias on both sides," she said. "But I think MSNBC is the worst of the worst."

Clarke's character letter

City Council President Darrell Clarke wants to be clear: The letter he sent to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is not an endorsement of developer Bart Blatstein's application to open a casino in the former headquarters of the Daily News, Inquirer and

Clarke called it "a character letter" that was read into the record at a Gaming Control Board public hearing Wednesday. He also said it is inappropriate for him to advocate for one of the six applications for the casino license, since other bidders have locations in other City Council districts.

The letter heaps praise on Blatstein as a "visionary," detailing five of the "transformational projects" he has done in the city.

Could the other casino applicants be jealous of such praise?

"Nobody else asked me for a similar letter of support," Clarke explained with a shrug.

It's not the first time Clarke has offered praise for Blatstein. Speaking at the developer's party to unveil his casino plans in October, Clarke said he would not endorse any of the projects. Then he winked. Then he asked the crowd if they saw the wink. They did.

Phone: 215-854-5973

On Twitter: @ChrisBrennanDN