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Former Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz seeks return to public office in challenge to Mayor Jim Kenney

Butkovitz is running an uphill challenge to Kenney's bid for a second term. He has criticized Kenney’s performance on crime, economic opportunity, and taxation.

Former Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz is one of two Democrats challenging Mayor Jim Kenney in the May 21 primary election.
Former Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz is one of two Democrats challenging Mayor Jim Kenney in the May 21 primary election.Read moreDavid Swanson / File Photograph

Alan Butkovitz started running for mayor of Philadelphia more than two years ago, when it became clear the longtime Northeast Philadelphia ward leader would likely be on the losing end in a Democratic primary for a fourth term as city controller.

Butkovitz met with the American Beverage Association eight weeks before the votes were counted in 2017, offering advice on how to combat Mayor Jim Kenney’s controversial tax. on sweetened beverages. He hoped the industry in turn would eventually back his play to defeat Kenney.

Like his fellow primary challenger, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, Butkovitz has centered his campaign on knocking Kenney’s performance on crime, economic opportunity, and taxation.

“I think, although Jim Kenney’s heart is in the right place, I don’t think that his focus has been on the really big crises facing the city,” Butkovitz said. “And I think we are at a point where we can’t be taking baby steps.”

January 2018 marked the first time in nearly three decades that Butkovitz, 67, was not holding elected office. He had served eight two-year terms in the state House, from 1991 to 2006, before his three four-year terms as controller.

This is the second time Butkovitz started early on a run for mayor. He put in place critical parts of a campaign in 2013 and 2014, intending to run in 2015, but then dropped those plans because he did not know whether City Council President Darrell L. Clarke would enter the Democratic primary.

Clarke ultimately did not run, but Kenney did, leaving Council after 24 years. Butkovitz endorsed him in the six-candidate primary, saying Kenney had proved “he has the passion and the know-how to move every neighborhood in Philadelphia forward.”

Butkovitz’s new campaign is light on infrastructure, a sign of the challenges in taking on an incumbent mayor. There is little by way of social media outreach, which he counts as a plus, citing his “shoot from the hip” style that could cause trouble on social media.

But can Butkovitz connect with voters? He has a daunting goal: becoming the first challenger to knock off a mayor seeking reelection in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I’m a good Twitter guy,” he said. “I think that probably a third of the city knows me pretty well. The people who know me tend to be newspaper readers.”

Big Soda doesn’t buy in on Butkovitz

Butkovitz’s hope for support from the soda industry has, so far, fizzled. Some well-known opponents of the soda tax — 1.5 cents per ounce added to the cost of sweetened beverages to pay for pre-K and other city programs — have made individual contributions. But the industry’s television blitz against the tax takes no notice of his candidacy.

Meanwhile, Butkovitz has started to hammer Kenney for his ties to John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Dougherty, City Councilman Bobby Henon, and six other union officials were indicted on Jan. 30, accused of embezzling more than $600,000 in union funds from 2010 to 2016. All have pleaded not guilty.

Local 98 helped fund an independent political action committee in 2015 that supported Kenney for mayor. A similar PAC, without Local 98 money so far, is supporting Kenney again this year.

An Inquirer analysis found Butkovitz accepted $202,151 from the union, including $22,894 after the 2016 FBI raids on the homes and offices of its leaders. He said that “everybody in Philadelphia” has taken contributions from Local 98.

Still, he claims Dougherty has a “death grip” on Kenney’s administration, influencing appointments to agencies that regulate construction, and helping decide who will build projects funded by the soda tax.

“If I’m in the pocket of Big Soda, they would be doing more for me than what they’re doing,” Butkovitz said. “It’s one thing to get contributions. It’s another thing to get bought."

Dougherty hit back, suggesting Butkovitz has other issues.

“Most people think Alan’s off his rocker these days,” the union leader said in an emailed statement. “He’s barely at 5 percent in the polls and his only support is from Big Soda. I tell people that instead of wasting their vote on him, to please say a prayer for his health.”

Attacking Kenney on crime and policing

Butkovitz, in his first appearance with Kenney and Williams, recently went after the mayor for not completing a 2015 campaign promise — eliminating the policing tactic known as “stop and frisk.”

Speaking in a forum sponsored by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Butkovitz said white candidates like him and Kenney could not fully grasp how the tactic impacts black Philadelphians. He vowed to end it “on the first day” if elected.

“I don’t have the experience of virtually all African Americans of being constantly targeted by police, but I did have that experience once in my life,” said Butkovitz, who recalled being pulled over in 1973 during a search for a serial rapist. “It all came down to a scraggly sketch of a white guy. He had scraggly hair and was 5-foot-7 and, on that basis, I was pulled over and checked. And I can tell you it was an absolutely terrifying experience.”

Butkovitz also railed about the city’s homicide rate, accusing the mayor and his staff of having an ineffective plan to deal with it.

“The homicide rate in every other city in America is falling,” Butkovitz said. “In Philadelphia, it’s skyrocketing. So this is not just some kind of national phenomenon.”

Butkovitz spoke with clear nostalgic admiration for “Operation Sunrise,” a 1998 multi-agency effort to crack down on drug dealing and other crime, calling it “a very popular program.” More than 20,000 people were arrested in neighborhoods that have since seen drug dealing, homicides, and other crimes wax and wane.

Butkovitz is also critical of Kenney’s support for supervised injection sites, where people dealing with addiction to opioids can use illegal drugs with services to prevent overdoses and extend offers of treatment. He calls the notion an “oxymoron” and predicts such locations would require police protection and spur more crime.

“Frankly, the proposal that the mayor has gotten behind on so-called safe injection sites takes us in the exact opposite direction, because it focuses exclusively on the people in addiction, who are unable to pull themselves out of this problem,” Butkovitz said. “It’s going to be a magnet for the drug dealers to come to that area, and we’re going to be bringing more violence and more homicides into the community.”

Can he harness the energy that ousted him from office?

Butkovitz is hanging his hopes on the political energy that grew from Democrats’ frustration with the election of President Donald Trump, the same power that ousted him.

Rebecca Rhynhart, a longtime appointed city official who had never run for office, won a primary campaign that drew on a “willingness to get involved” in races that typically don’t create much buzz, he noted.

It was a departure from the city’s history of low-voter-turnout elections for controller and district attorney, where party-driven ward politics usually prevail. Butkovitz’s own status as a ward leader and his support from the local party could not save him.

In the defeat, Butkovitz saw a path to the office he originally intended to seek four years ago.

“The seeds of that were planted by the fact that Rhynhart was able to win,” Butkovitz said. “She was the precursor or pioneer demonstrating that the old rules of politics in Philadelphia don’t apply.”