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What is a city controller? Candidates find themselves explaining while seeking votes

Without televised debates or advertisements, the two Phila. candidates have been asking for votes one at a time at various community meetings. Here's a look at the controller's race with just a few weeks until election day.

Democrat Rebecca Rhynhart and Republican Mike Tomlinson will face each other in the Nov. 7 general election for Philadelphia City Controller.
Democrat Rebecca Rhynhart and Republican Mike Tomlinson will face each other in the Nov. 7 general election for Philadelphia City Controller.Read moreStaff

Without televised debates or advertisements, the two candidates for city controller have been asking for votes one at a time at various community meetings.

Sometimes, they first have to explain just what the controller does.

"The job of the city controller is to make sure money is spent well," Democratic candidate Rebecca Rhynhart told a crowd of about three dozen West Philadelphia block captains Monday night.

In the most basic terms, Rhynhart, who is running against Republican Mike Tomlinson, is right. The city charter gives the controller the power to audit the books of city departments. But it can be more: Previous controllers have often become critics — and even adversaries — of mayors.

"There's an inherent institutional conflict with the mayor's office," outgoing City Controller Alan Butkovitz said. "The controller was designed in the charter to be the department that is able to check the truthfulness and functionality of all city departments and eventually it results in conflict with mayor's office."

Rhynhart, however, has preached during her campaign about working jointly with Mayor Kenney instead of holding "gotcha press conferences."

"I think there's a way to work collaboratively while keeping an independent voice," Rhynhart told the West Philadelphia block captains.

Tomlinson disagrees.

"It's completely inappropriate to collaborate with the mayor," he said in an interview. "The controller needs to be the independent oversight."

The pair have been at only one community event together since the May election, in which Tomlinson ran unopposed in the Republican primary and Rhynhart had an upset win over Butkovitz in the Democratic primary. A good-government group is planning a joint forum for Nov. 2.

In the meantime, both candidates have been attending community meetings, parades, and any public event where they can get their message out.

Rhynhart, 43, has an automatic edge over Tomlinson, 60, because Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 7-1 ratio in Philadelphia.

Turnout is historically low in general elections where controller and district attorney are at the top of the ballot. In 2013, it was 12 percent.

Tomlinson, who lives in Holmesburg, is optimistic that with such a low turnout, he has a shot. When he ran for state Senate and state Representative in 2012 and 2014, respectively, he was able to get a third of the votes in predominantly Democratic voting districts.

"I know the deck is stacked," he said, adding that he hates having "Republican" in front of his name. He considers himself an independent and switched to the GOP only in 2011 so he could run in the 2012 state Senate race.

He goes to bed every night, he said, and thinks to himself "Why am I doing this?" But he said that when he speaks to a crowd or even just has a conversation about his candidacy with someone on the El, "They'll say 'Man, thank you. I'm so glad.' And I'm uplifted."

Tomlinson grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Father Judge High School in 1975. He joined his father, a factory worker, on the midnight-8 a.m. shift at a box factory just down the block from their home.

"It was a brute job," he said. Tomlinson wanted more for himself.

He enrolled at Temple University and graduated with a degree in accounting in 1981. He worked for Presbyterian Ministers' Fund and other insurance companies before moving on to be a self-employed CPA.

Tomlinson got the bug to run for controller following his work as Northeast director for the Terry Tracy for Controller campaign in 2013. Tracy, a Republican, lost to Butkovitz.

"I learned what's going on in the city," he said, noting the struggling pension fund and the school district's financial crisis.

Rhynhart grew up in Abington and graduated from Middlebury College, later receiving a master's degree in public administration from 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 Nutter. From there, she rose to budget director. When Kenney came into office, he created a position for her: chief administrative officer.

After six months on the Kenney team, Rhynhart quit to run for controller.

The Center City resident then positioned herself as a political outsider in a year where voters wanted change. It worked.

Her campaign started off as a grassroots effort and blossomed into a respectable fund-raising operation (she outraised Butkovitz by more than double in the last two months of the race) with backing from former Gov. Ed Rendell and others. Still, she took everyone by surprise when she beat party-favorite Butkovitz, who was seeking his fourth term, by a 3-2 ratio.

Since then, she has received the royal treatment of being the Democratic nominee in a Democratic-majority city. Between June and mid-September, she raised $132,000 compared with Tomlison's $1,440 during the same time period.

The usual political donors have come out with big checks for her: IBEW Local 98 gave her $11,900, District Council 21 Painters union gave her $10,500, other labor unions chipped in with $5,000 checks. Then there are the big law firms: Duane Morris, Dilworth Paxon and Stradley Ronon each gave $2,500.

Kenney for Philadelphia, the mayor's political action committee, also gave Rhynhart $11,900.

Asked about the optics of accepting such an amount from the PAC of the mayor she will be overseeing financially, Rhynhart said that the support is "in no way going to influence what decisions I make."

She said she sought to get as broad a financial base as possible and that included unions and the mayor.

Still, Rhynhart says, she is taking the Nov. 7 election seriously and is making sure that average Philadelphians, not just the ones with deep pockets, know who she is.

Tomlinson is doing the same.