Race for Philadelphia controller heats up

City Controller Alan Butkovitz has not hid his desire to run for mayor in 2015.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz has not hid his desire to run for mayor in 2015. (File photograph)
Posted: January 15, 2013

In Philadelphia and other cities where one political party dominates the scene, incumbents don't usually face much trouble getting reelected.

But at least four challengers have surfaced to contest Alan Butkovitz's bid for a third term as city controller.

He faces more flak from a former employee who has established an anti-Butkovitz website that features the controller in a natty gray suit with a Pinocchio-like nose.

The race may be complicated by Butkovitz's unconcealed interest in running for mayor in 2015, an itch that has struck virtually every city controller over the last 65 years.

The only one who made the transition was Joseph S. Clark, elected controller in 1949 and mayor in 1951, who later served two terms in the U.S. Senate.

A provision in the City Charter requires elected officials to resign if they run for another position. If Butkovitz is reelected and decides to run for mayor, he would have to give up the controller's seat by early 2015.

"[Running for mayor] will depend on the conditions that arise," Butkovitz said, referring to the field of potential mayoral candidates and the long-shot possibility that Mayor Nutter could resign before the end of his term, catapulting Council President Darrell L. Clarke into the Mayor's Office.

"There's a lot of water to go under the bridge before the next mayoral election," said Butkovitz, 60, a Democrat from the Castor Gardens section of Northeast Philadelphia who spent 15 years in the state House before winning the controller's job in 2005.

Potential candidates have until the March 12 filing deadline to seek nominations for controller or the other offices scheduled for the May 21 primary - district attorney, Common Pleas Court, and Traffic Court. Voters will also choose judges of election and inspectors in the city's 1,687 voting divisions.

Three Democrats - tax-reform activist Brett Mandel and lawyers Michael Williams and Mark Zecca - have already organized campaigns for controller. Young retailing executive Terry Tracy says he is ready to go after the Republican nomination.

Butkovitz said he was still enthusiastic about his job, whose responsibilities under the City Charter include examining all city expenses and auditing all departments.

Asked to identify his three most important accomplishments, Butkovitz cited a 2011 forensic audit of the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office, the spur for an ongoing FBI investigation; his research and warnings about the potential impact of the city's still-pending real estate reassessment; and exposure of a construction firm misrepresenting the work it was sending to minority contractors.

Butkovitz's critics say his office has missed problems it should have picked up on, such as the sexual harassment and misspending allegations against the former head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, where Butkovitz had appointed two board members. They also accuse Butkovitz of falling short on broad goals such as government efficiency.

"Our taxes are too high, our job rates are too low, the crime rates are too high," said Mandel, 43, who worked eight years for Butkovitz's predecessor, Jonathan Saidel, cowriting a book on how to improve city government. "If we're ever going to get back to making our tax structure more competitive and improving the quality of life in Philadelphia, the controller is the person who can get us there by making sure we're spending our money effectively and efficiently."

Mandel grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and now lives in the Fitler Square section of Center City with his wife and three children. He ran third in the Democratic primary for controller in 2009 but barely stopped campaigning, maintaining a public profile as executive director of Philadelphia Forward, a tax-reform group, and filing an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging delays in reassessing city real estate.

Zecca, 60, was raised in Philadelphia politics. His father, Tony, a well-known city spokesman, was originally hired by the Dilworth administration, and he became a deputy mayor under Frank Rizzo.

After George Washington High School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Temple Law School, Mark Zecca worked for 15 years as a government lawyer in Washington, then returned to Philadelphia to join the city Law Department. Until resigning last fall, he spent 20 years on high-profile cases involving city finances, gun control, SEPTA, and voting rights.

"We desperately need a good city controller," Zecca said last week. "He's the only official whose specific job is to be an independent watchdog, and I can do the job so much better than the incumbent. . . . The current controller doesn't produce change, he produces reports that sit on shelves."

Williams, 53, grew up in Compton, Calif., just outside Los Angeles. He came to Philadelphia in 1977 to attend Temple, but he said he dropped out and was homeless for months before moving back to California.

Williams returned to Philadelphia in 1989, took another crack at Temple, graduated, and went on to the University of Pennsylvania law school. He became deputy director of Community Legal Services, ran the city's Minority Business Enterprise Council from 2004 to 2006, and worked for the city Law Department for six years after that, dealing mostly with public-health issues.

Williams lives in the Washington Square West neighborhood and works for the law firm Picciotti & Schoenberg. The firm had a run-in with Butkovitz two years ago when the controller blocked a no-bid contract for a related entity to tackle bookkeeping problems in the Sheriff's Office.

"I just think they need a better manager in the Controller's Office," Williams said. "The office is not running to its full potential."

Tracy, 30, grew up in Upper Darby, graduated from Temple, and earned a master's degree in government administration from the Fels School at Penn. After working on David Oh's successful campaign for City Council in 2011, he decided to run for office himself.

"There are a lot of great things happening in the city right now, but taking it to the next level will require a new generation of leadership," said Tracy, who also lives in Fitler Square. "I see this race as an opportunity to talk about all those things."


Contact Bob Warner

at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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