Controller's race could set stage for 2015

Democratic City Controller Alan Butkovitz is running for a third four-year term.
Democratic City Controller Alan Butkovitz is running for a third four-year term.
Posted: October 22, 2013

An otherwise sleepy race for Philadelphia city controller is shaping up as a test of future power for the two-term incumbent and the challenging party.

Political experts and insiders are asking: Can Controller Alan Butkovitz pull off a large enough Nov. 5 reelection victory to show Democratic Party leaders he has the political clout to run a successful mayoral campaign in 2015?

And can newcomer Terry Tracy defeat low expectations for a Republican challenger and help reenergize the city's vastly outnumbered GOP for future elections?

"The subtext to watch is that they are grooming for other offices," said Randall Miller, a regional politics expert and American studies and history professor at St. Joseph's University.

Neither candidate said another office was his goal in running for this office. In fact, both said they believed the Controller's Office - which they agree is largely unknown to the nongovernment world - plays one of the most important roles in how the city functions.

"Our role is to question. Our role is to test things," Butkovitz said Thursday during an interview with The Inquirer Editorial Board, adding that political affiliation shouldn't matter.

"I do think this office is uniquely positioned to evaluate the effectiveness of public policy," Tracy said during the same joint appearance. "The reason we spend money is because we are implementing policy, and so it is the controller's responsibility to evaluate whether or not the spending . . . was effective."

The controller is an independent elected position in charge of auditing all city departments and agencies for their spending and work performance and making recommendations for improvement. The controller can also stop payments to city agencies.

Though the controller's salary is set at $127,000, Butkovitz has made a point of giving back an $18,000 raise that was added in 2008.

The office's independence has financial strings attached: Its $7 million-plus budget is part of the city's overall budget, so the mayor and City Council have say over its resources.

"Controller is a funny kind of job," Butkovitz said, referring to its power structure.

Butkovitz, who seeks a third four-year term, continues to flirt with the idea of running for mayor in 2015. He says it will depend on whether the political winds shift in his favor.

"If there is support for the kind of kind of changes that I believe are needed in the city, then I will consider doing it, but I don't have an ego that says it has to be me," Butkovitz said. "If it looks like [others] are better positioned to take on reform, then I could be supportive of them."

Meanwhile, he is also looking to build alliances, especially with Council, in order to push more policy through in his role as controller.

He calls for crafting long-term strategies to generate jobs, bring long-term solvency to the city's cash-strapped public schools, and amp up overall government efficiency.

"We are getting better all the time at making this office a very effective part of the constructive opposition of Philadelphia . . . I've been right at calling so many issues so early in the game," he said.

As highlights of his tenure, he touts: the 2011 forensic audit of the Sheriff's Office, now the focus of a federal corruption probe; his report of understaffing and underfunding at the Department of Licenses & Inspections years ahead of the fatal June 5 building collapse on Market Street; and his findings on deficits and violence in the school system.

His opponents, both in the Democratic primary and the fall race, have faulted him for not doing enough in reporting the schools' financial problems.

"We were constantly at war with the school district . . .. They never subjected themselves to any kind of financial discipline," Butkovitz said.

The school audits were one of the main points of disagreement between Butkovitz and Tracy last week in their joint appearance, with the challenger arguing that Butkovitz had neither done enough nor tried hard enough.

"I would work with various interested parties to build the sort of coalition that would manifest the political will to really get in there and audit their books," Tracy said.

Tracy, whose only previous experience in politics was working as a regional campaign manager for Councilman David Oh, is a director of stores for the Ralph Lauren Co. retail clothing chain. He says he found inspiration in reading about the late Mayor Joseph S. Clark.

Running as a reform Democrat in Republican-run Philadelphia, Clark won the controller's post in 1949 - and two years later became Philadelphia's first Democratic mayor since 1884, tackling corruption in City Hall.

As a retail director for several clothing chains, Tracy said, he has overseen strategic financial planning for various retail stores.

"Having run operations worth several hundred million dollars with up to 10,000 employees . . . I challenge this notion that because I'm half of Alan's age I have subpar experience," he said. "I've run operations that are probably four, five times as large as anything he's run."

Tracy, 31, who lives in Fitler Square, said he would like to see better data come out of the Controller's Office on school finances and economic development, including regarding the Convention Center.

"It's about effective policy and objective oversight . . . I think that's what's been missing in that office for too long," Tracy said.

Chances are slim for the challenger, according to political experts.

"If you are going to be a Republican and face the odds Tracy faces, you have to have some older, overriding issue on the incumbent," G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, said, referring to the city's 6-to-1 Democratic advantage over Republicans among registered voters.

"It can't just be, 'Oh, he failed to do this audit or that audit,' " Madonna said. "In Philadelphia, would that be the most egregious thing?"

But Madonna and St. Joseph's Miller say this race could help both candidates with what they do next.

Butkovitz perhaps will run for mayor. And Tracy?

"I just need to get through the next few weeks," he said, "and we'll see where the chips fall."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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