Rebecca Rhynhart became Philadelphia city controller as a political novice who beat the party-favored incumbent in the primary.
Four years later, Rhynhart is poised to go unchallenged in both the May Democratic primary and November’s general election. And that’s got political watchers talking more about her potential candidacy for mayor in 2023 than her current campaign.
Rhynhart, the first woman to serve as city controller, isn’t letting the lack of a competitive campaign slow her fund-raising. She took in nearly $340,000 in 2020, outpacing every member of City Council. She hosts four or five virtual fund-raisers per week.
Rhynhart said in an interview last week that she’s focused on her current job, and that she’s been actively raising campaign cash because it wasn’t safe to assume she wouldn’t draw an opponent before Tuesday evening — the deadline for candidates to file paperwork to get on the ballot. In the end, no one filed to run against her, in either party.
“I’ve upset some powerful interests here in Philadelphia. I think it would have been naive for me to think that they wouldn’t try to replace me,” she said. “I had to be prepared. And the way to be prepared politically is to have financial strength.”
The city controller is an independent fiscal watchdog, responsible for auditing the city and the School District. The position comes with a $140,000 annual salary, and the office is also empowered to investigate accusations of mismanagement by city offices and agencies.
The biggest player Rhynhart has upset is Mayor Jim Kenney — her former boss. She worked as his chief administrative officer before resigning in 2016 to run for controller. Their relationship quickly deteriorated.
After she released a 2018 audit showing that Philadelphia had the worst accounting practices among the 10 largest U.S. cities, with $924 million in bookkeeping errors in one year, Kenney accused her of making “sensationalized statements and recklessly inflated dollar figures.”
“Putting attention on that and saying, ‘This is not OK, we need to do better with taxpayer money, we need to be a better-run city,’ that’s something I’m proud of,” Rhynhart said.
Her background is in finance — she worked as city treasurer and budget director in former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, and previously worked on Wall Street. But she has also focused on other issues, including commissioning an independent investigation of the city’s response to last year’s protests against police brutality.
That investigation included new details about Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw’s decision to use tear gas, and much of the report’s criticism of city leadership focused on her. But Rhynhart notably focused on Kenney when she released the report in January.
“The mayor can’t just say, ‘Well, I don’t have to make any decisions, so therefore I’m not to blame,’” Rhynhart said then. “The mayor’s supposed to be in charge.”
Kenney’s office said in response to the report that he had shown “far greater leadership than Monday morning quarterbacking by an official more focused on her own resume than in actually making Philadelphia a better place.”
Rhynhart said she had hoped for a collaborative relationship with Kenney, in which she would make recommendations and he would implement them. And while some say she isn’t tough enough on Kenney — especially for an aspiring mayor — she said she prefers to be “tough on the issues.”
“I don’t see the need to get out there and personally attack and get a headline for an attack,” she said. “What I want to do is call it as it is and push for that change. And I’m deliberate about that and strategic about that.”
Ed Rendell, who helped Rhynhart raise money for her first campaign, said she should have some enemies.
“If everyone likes the controller, that means they haven’t done jack-you-know-what,” said Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor.
Rendell recalled sitting with Rhynhart just before the 2017 primary against then-Controller Alan Butkovitz, encouraging her to call donors who had given some money but still had room to contribute under city limits. With just 10 minutes to go before the next campaign-finance reporting deadline, Rhynhart put down the phone and noted that Rendell himself hadn’t maxed out.
”I went to get my checkbook and said, ‘I’ve created a monster,’” Rendell said.
Rhynhart’s campaign contributors last year include soda-tax foe Harold Honickman, ShopRite chain owner Jeff Brown, Nutter, former state Republican Party lawyer Joel Frank, and billionaire Richard Vague, who serves as Rhynhart’s finance chair.
Rendell said Rhynhart should spend some of her war chest this year on TV ads and campaign mailers.
”Certainly money-wise, it’s a great advantage not to have an opponent in the primary and a weak opponent in the general,” he said. “Nobody will be saying anything negative about her during the course of the year.”
Rhynhart knows all too well how a newcomer can sneak up on an incumbent, because that’s how she defeated Butkovitz in 2017. He was a political insider, a Democratic Party ward leader, and a former state representative — with hopes of becoming mayor one day himself. Rhynhart campaigned as an outsider and a reformer, and her pitch resonated.
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Butkovitz said he spots a strategy in Rhynhart’s recent fund-raising and other moves, such as a top aide moving from her government office to her campaign, which is issuing news releases about endorsements — even without a challenger in sight. Butkovitz said Rhynhart might be raising her name recognition not just to familiarize voters with her record, but also to prime the field for her campaign to conduct a poll that would establish her as a player in the 2023 mayor’s race. Numerous members of City Council and others are seen as potential candidates to succeed Kenney.
”She is showing the greatest aggressiveness of anyone in that field,” Butkovitz said.
Judith von Seldeneck, an executive recruitment firm owner and Rhynhart supporter, called her “really smart.” Von Seldeneck is encouraged that a strong roster of viable female candidates is building ahead of 2023 in a city that has never had a woman as mayor.
”I think she’s a strong candidate,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a wealth of women candidates?”
Rhynhart said last week that “it’s great to see so many women being named as potential candidates” — a list that includes City Councilmembers Cindy Bass, Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.
But Rhynhart said she’s focused on talking to voters about her reelection campaign and building her coalition of support.
“When I talk to businesspeople and I talk to unions and I talk to a lot of people who live in the city,” she said, “they all want the same thing, which is government to work.”