Potential Fiscal Watchdogs Bark Up Philadelphia’s Electoral Tree

Hillel Levinson, one of three candidates seeking to become the next city controller, lists a series of "Philadelphia Icons" on his Web site: cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and the Liberty Bell. The last in the sequence is Levinson himself.

But for all of Levinson's municipal credentials – he was born in the city, went to Central High School, earned his undergraduate degree at Temple University, studied law at Villanova University, and served as Philadelphia's managing director from 1972 to 1980 – the 68-year-old's biography offers one item that might prove a stumbling block come Election Day: He is running as a Republican in a city that's predominantly Democratic.

The one-time honoree of the Jewish Community Relations Council, however, sees his party affiliation as an asset in the race for the city's top fiscal-watchdog job.

Philadelphia's Home Rule Charter stresses "the independence of officials whose expenditures he will audit," Levinson points out in explaining why he decided to switch parties after years of being a Democrat. "I chose to switch parties to demonstrate the emphasis on the controller being independent."

But in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 5 to 1, and where most of City Hall's elected offices are filled by Democrats, Levinson quickly clarifies that he is not to be associated with some other Republicans, most notably President George W. Bush, and Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.

"I am not necessarily a Bush Republican, a Santorum Republican or even a Specter Republican," he says. "I'm a Philadelphia Republican."

Bucking Traditional Alliances?

State Rep. Alan Butkovitz (D-District 174), the Democrat standing in Levinson's way, says that such an explanation will prove no good come Nov. 8.

"I think we're far ahead, and we're going to win overwhelmingly," predicts Butkovitz, a member of Northeast Philadelphia's Jewish community and a 14-year veteran of the legislature in Harrisburg. "We've polled the city, and we have greater than a 2-to-1 lead even before people hear the advertising campaign."

Levinson says his campaign has not conducted any polling, but that a warm reception he received from the African-American Tavern Owners Association on Sunday proves that many people will be bucking traditional alliances at the ballot box.

"Philadelphians are as unhappy with the corruption in this city as I am," says Levinson, referring to the city's pay-to-play scandal that found several associates of Democratic Mayor John Street sentenced to jail and City Councilman Rick Mariano, a Democrat, also facing a probable indictment.

Both candidates, though, stress that they will use the controller's office to clean up Philadelphia politics. Both profess admiration for the current controller – Democrat Jonathan Saidel, who is stepping down and is expected to run for mayor in 2007 – but say they will do things a little bit differently.

Butkovitz wants to dedicate as many as 10,000 hours a year to conducting performance audits of city departments, as well as the traditional financial audits currently performed. According to Butkovitz, Philadelphia falls far behind other cities in this area and suffers as a result.

"Look at what happened at the airport," says Butkovitz, referring to one of the cases coming out of the federal investigation into City Hall corruption. "What a coincidence it was that [Street confidant] Ron White and his family had 11 separate contracts for restaurants at the airport. That is not statistically possible. We've got to get more people's feet on the ground, away from the paperwork, to conduct more vigorous investigations."

For his part, Levinson plans to use the "bully pulpit" of the controller's office to subject all of the city's finances to scrutiny.

"We have all these little fiefdoms, probably close to 100 funds of money that are not going through the General Fund and normal budget process," he explains. "We also have to look at how departments are staffed. People will find that we have a lot of chiefs, but not enough Indians."

Turning to his opponent, Levinson says that his experience from the 1970s administration of Mayor Frank Rizzo makes him uniquely qualified in a way that Butkovitz is not.

"Under Rizzo, the managing director really was the chief operating officer of the city," he states. "I have a firsthand experience of all of the city's 10 operating departments. Plus, I was on the SEPTA board and the Fairmount Park Commission."

Butkovitz, who already counts some union endorsements while Levinson has none, shrugs off such a critique as coming from someone who's trying to shed his underdog status.

"I'm a strong analyst, a strong investigator," says Butkovitz, 54, a graduate of Overbrook High School, Temple University and Temple University School of Law. "There's a lot of opportunity to make Philadelphia realize its potential.

"A lot of people had thought Philadelphia had seen its day, but look at all of the development at the waterfront and in some parts of Northeast Philadelphia," he continues. "The city deserves a 21st-century government."

Independent candidate Paris Frazier is also on the ballot for the controller slot.



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