Alan Butkovitz, 66, wants to be clear: He, Alan Butkovitz, a Democrat, a 25-year ward leader, a 15-year veteran of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Philadelphia City Controller for 12 more years after that, seriously intends to unseat incumbent Mayor Jim Kenney in 2019.
Never mind that in 2017 he decisively lost his controller seat to Rebecca Rhynhart, a former Kenney aide, or that he endorsed Kenney himself in 2015. Butkovitz, a self-described “rebel member of the state legislature” back in the day, is ready to be a rebel mayor. Or, something like that.
“There’s a place for an independent mayor,” he said.
That’s a big change for the Jewish Butkovitz, who told The Philadelphia Inquirer last November that he would run “for anything but mayor.” On Nov. 15, almost a year to the day of that declaration, he announced his candidacy at the Courtyard by Marriott across the street from City Hall.
Kenney, according to Butkovitz, has not been the independent that he promises to be; Kenney is beholden to, in no particular order, the unions that helped elect him, the Philadelphia Democratic machine and Center City dwellers. He charges Kenney with kicking the can down the road on homicide prevention, creating an environment hostile to business, locking the city’s African-American population out of the halls of power, fostering the Amazon HQ “mirage,” and that was just to start.
“The city needs strong leadership,” said Butkovitz, the Overbrook High School and Temple University graduate. “Right now, things are being addressed on a very symbolic and piecemeal basis, and are going in the wrong direction.”
Butkovitz has flirted with running for mayor before, going so far as to hire consultants for a 2015 run that never materialized. An accumulation of failures by Kenney spurred him beyond criticism and into action, he said. High on his list will be repealing the soda tax and ending the police use of stop-and-frisk.
Butkovitz has long displayed a talent for keeping his name in public discussion; as controller, not typically a splashy position, he made waves with frequent press conferences regarding audits and sharp criticisms of city finances, which weren’t always well received. Former Mayor Michael Nutter once said that Butkovitz had a “narcissistic personality disorder that seems to compel the need for constant public attention,” which is almost a compliment compared to the time that Nutter called him “a snake, a liar and a hypocrite.”
Kenney got in on the action as well; when reached for comment on Butkovitz’s campaign, Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt described the challenger as a “corporate Democrat running to help billionaire soda CEOs.” Indeed, Butkovitz has both publicly and privately courted the support of soda industry executives.
Butkovitz remains proud of his own record.
He often cites his work as having accrued $115 million in savings for the city during his time as controller, and he relishes his role as a doer. And Nutter’s accusation of certain serpentine tendencies were in reference to a Butkovitz investigation that has now produced corruption charges for a member of Nutter’s staff, to be brought forth by Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Even Kenney had good things to say following his defeat at Rhynhart’s hands. “There’s no question that Philadelphia is better off because of his leadership,” the mayor said at the time.
“I’ve been a problem solver all my life,” Butkovitz said.
Butkovitz says he envisions a future for Philadelphia focused on large-scale economic projects like port expansion, paired with programs providing mentorship for disadvantaged residents and $50,000-per-year jobs for people without a college degree. Beyond that, he’s still a little short on specifics; one of his main charges for Kenney is that he hasn’t done enough, broadly, for “education and programs.”
That’s where Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, thinks that Butkovitz may run into some trouble: failing to create substantial differentiation between himself and Kenney in the electorate’s mind. Butkovitz cast himself as an outsider in his race against Rhynhart, only to be upset, barely winning his own ward. There’s also no denying that he’s long benefited from the same union and Democratic machine power that Kenney has.
“When you want to defeat an incumbent, you need a reason that resonates with the voters,” Madonna said.
Madonna noted that though Butkovitz may have benefited from Philadelphia’s machine politics in the past, running up against Kenney is another animal.
“It’s one thing to make a compelling case about the city moving forward,” Madonna said. “It’s another to line up the support in a primary and in a city where a couple of the powerful unions and the infrastructure of the party, the ward leaders, major players in the party are often determinative of what happens. So he’s going to have to make the case certainly to those two groups.”
As for Butkovitz himself, he’s confident that he’s in a position to win.
“People need to realize what a skin-of-his-teeth it was for Kenney four years ago,” Butkovitz said. “There’s a lot of evidence that this mayor is very politically vulnerable.”
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