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Wi​ll Butkovitz Be Last Jew Left in Top City Post?

May 21, 2009 By:
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Alan Butkovitz

Ten years ago, all three of Philadelphia's top citywide officials were Jewish: Mayor Ed Rendell, District Attorney Lynne Abraham and Controller Jonathan Saidel.

With Abraham set to retire at the end of the year, and the results in from the May 19 primary, the most likely scenario is that City Controller Alan Butkovitz will remain Philadelphia's lone Jewish elected official.

But in politics, there's always room for surprises. The number could also be two or zero, depending, in part, on whether Michael Untermeyer, a Jewish Republican candidate for district attorney, can manage to defeat the heavily favored Seth Williams in November.

"I don't want to overreact, but I would say that as the number of Jewish voters go down in the city, it's not surprising that the presence of Jewish elected officials will also go down," said David Hyman, a Center City lawyer and former American Jewish Committee president who has long been involved in Philadelphia politics.

Hyman also pointed out that their hasn't been a Jewish member of City Council since David Cohen, the longtime at-large member, died in 2005.

Butkovitz, the party-backed incumbent first elected in 2005, prevailed in a three-way Democratic primary on Tuesday, with 41 percent, or a little more than 35,000 votes.

His two opponents, former Common Pleas Judge John Braxton and Brett Mandell, a former analyst at the controller's office, received 30 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Butkovitz called the results a "landslide" and an endorsement of his tenure.

"It was a very convincing win," said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political consultant. "Brett Mandell ran a very spirited campaign. The trouble with Brett is, Brett's appeal was very limited. His votes basically came out of Center City and Northwest Philadelphia."

For his part, Mandell, another Jewish candidate, put a different spin on the results. Philadelphia voted "against the incumbent and voted for change," he said in his concession speech, noting that more people voted against Butkovitz than voted for him. "But we are split how to change," so the incumbent prevailed, he said.

Butkovitz will be favored to defeat Republican Al Schmidt, the former head of the city's Republican Party.

Few of the candidates managed to raise serious money or mount television advertising campaigns. In marked contrast to long lines in the polls in November, poll workers sat with little to do throughout the day; turnout amounted to just 13 percent.

In the marquee race for district attorney, Williams triumphed in a five-way Democratic primary, carrying 42 percent of the vote, which translated to 43,000 votes. In 2005, the one-time-prosecutor lost a challenge to Abraham, who'd been his former boss and is now retiring after 18 years on the job.

Hymen said that the district attorney's race split largely along racial lines, with blacks lining up behind Williams and Daniel McCaffrey carrying much of the white vote, something he said is more apt to happen when there is low turnout.

Hymen noted that several wards with high Jewish populations, including the 8th and 15th wards -- which cover the Rittenhouse Square and Fairmount sections -- appeared to be exceptions. Those wards were either split or went for Williams.

Ceisler, on the hand, said it was hard to draw a broad conclusion about race and politics in the city from Tuesday's results.

Heading into November, Williams will be heavily favored to defeat Untermeyer, who ran unopposed in the primary.

Untermeyer switched parties earlier this year to run as a Republican. He said that the office should be non-partisan and that running on the GOP slate offered him the only realistic shot at the post.

"Political philosophy should have nothing to do with being an advocate for public safety," said Untermeyer, an Old City resident who has worked in private practice and as a real estate developer and served as a judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

In 2007 he ran unsuccessfully for the little-known office of Philadelphia sheriff.

"I'll be campaigning every day between now and election day," said Untermeyer.

In another result, Philadelphia Judge Anne E. Lazarus, a former chancellor of the Louis D. Brandeis Law Society, was amount the three candidates statewide with enough votes to nab the Democratic Party's nomination for an open seat on the state Supreme Court.

In November, voters will choose a replacement for Judge Jane Greenspan, whom Rendell, now the Pennsylvania governor, appointed to the court last year after Chief Justice Ralph Cappy retired.

Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin of Pittsburgh won the Republican primary.

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