“You’ve brought up Michael Nutter a few times,” said Rebecca Rhynhart, sounding just a touch irritated, half an hour into an interview about her campaign for Philadelphia city controller last month. “I am my own person running for office. And I am extremely qualified, with all of my years of financial experience and a master’s in public administration from Columbia. I’m very well qualified for this job, and I’m running because I want to make a difference. Because I made a decision with my family to step down from my position in order to take the chance to run for office to make the city better. That was me. That was my decision. I just want to make that crystal clear.”
It’s not that surprising that Rhynhart, the 42-year-old former budget director and chief administrative officer for the city, would be frustrated by questions about the former mayor’s influence on her campaign. The very moment her name was mentioned in connection with the controller’s race, the incumbent controller, Alan Butkovitz, told The Inquirer, “This sounds like a Nutter ploy.”
That’s a condescending view, she counters, adding that her decision to challenge Butkovitz had nothing to do with his toxic relationship with Nutter, who first brought Rhynhart into city government in 2008.
Butkovitz “is a career politician,” she said. “He gets up there and he holds a press conference and then he walks away, and there’s not much follow-up. There’s nothing that actually drives the change forward … My view of the job he’s doing does not have to do with any one political leader.”
Rhynhart, who grew up in Montgomery County, began her career in finance on Wall Street, first working for the credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings, and later joining the now-defunct investment bank Bear Stearns. At Bear Stearns, she worked with interest-rate derivatives, which, she said, were traded by municipalities as a way to save money. And while those derivatives could accomplish those savings, Rhynhart said the transactions also required cities to take on the risks of the same insurance companies that were investing in mortgage-backed securities, the financial products that brought the economy crashing down in 2008.
As it happened, Rhynhart left Bear Stearns to join the Nutter administration in March 2008, just a few weeks before the firm imploded, a harbinger of the chaos that would reign on Wall Street half a year later.
Like the vast majority of Americans, Rhynhart didn’t know the crash was coming – her departure was just a case of lucky timing.
“The reason I left is because I wanted to wake up every day and actually feel good about what I’m doing,” she said. “So, no. No. I want to wake up every day and feel like I’m having an impact on the people here. And I didn’t feel that, and that’s why I left.”
Rhynhart joined the city government as debt manager, then became city treasurer. Nutter, whose team, especially in his first term, was concerned above all with making sound financial decisions, appointed her budget director in 2010.
“There was nothing fun about what we had to go through,” Rhynhart recalled. “Absolutely not. We had to make significant cuts in the budget. It was the deepest recession we’ve had since the Great Depression, so it was very painful. It is not a comfortable process. And that’s why I really feel like we need to look into modernizing, in order to be more efficient, because we can’t just cut.”
Rhynhart’s tenure as budget director coincided with the Nutter administration’s proposal to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works, a move that, according to the administration’s calculations, could have earned the city a one-time payment of between $1.5 billion and $1.85 billion. Partly because no one initially knew whether the sale would be worth it in the long run, the proposal was slow to roll out. The administration ultimately decided to move forward with the sale, only to have it be rejected by City Council.
“From a financial perspective, in my role as budget director, when asked about the numbers, there was an opportunity there,” she explained. “But there was a policy decision to be made, and that was above my position at that point – that was between the mayor and City Council. Things don’t just come down to dollars and cents. And look, there’s a lot of opportunity in terms of owning PGW. There’s a lot of opportunity in terms of having the largest municipally owned gas entity in the country. So I think we should focus on that instead of the conversation about ‘What if?’”
A few weeks after Jim Kenney won the general election for mayor, he announced that he would be keeping both Rhynhart and Rob Dubow, who served as the city’s finance director under Nutter, in top positions in his administration, calling both “hardened” and “battle-tested” from their work during the financial crisis. He appointed Rhynhart to a new cabinet-level position, chief administrative officer, overseeing the information technology, procurement, human resources, property, and fleet management departments. During her year in that position, Rhynhart helped kickstart a “reverse bidding” process for small city purchases, hoping the method would help the city save money by letting vendors see each other’s bids and lowering their prices accordingly. She also worked on making procurement practices more efficient by creating a paperless system.
“I would say that my focus has been on modernizing government,” Rhynhart said. “Because I think through modernizing it, you really get a more efficient government. And looking for efficiencies is also part of the role of the city controller.”
A few months into the CAO role, Rhynhart faced questions from City Council members about diversity in the upper echelons of the departments under her oversight. It’s an issue the whole Kenney administration has faced time and again.
“If you look at the data, it's something that's not changed overnight,” Rhynhart said. “When I went in front of council, it was a few months after stepping up into that role. Things don’t change overnight. But over time, it needs to be changed. And that’s something that Mayor Kenney believes strongly in, and so do I.”
Rhynhart has now worked under two mayors, and has little criticism to offer of either one. (For their parts, Nutter did not respond to messages from City & State, and a spokesman for Kenney’s campaign committee said it was too early in the race for an endorsement.) Still, she feels that her work with the city has given her the experience and knowledge of government to be an effective, independent controller. And she says that under Butkovitz, the auditing department has not consistently performed annual audits of every department in the city government, as the Home Rule Charter says it should.
I asked her whether she thought that the city controller needed to be locked into an austerity mindset, focused on making sure the city spends as little money as possible.
“No,” she said. “I think it’s about smart use of money. And I think there’s a difference. I think that sometimes, investments are needed in order to move forward. Sometimes you might need to spend money to buy something to modernize, in order to save money down the road. So it’s not just about austerity. It’s about being smart with money.”
Rhynhart takes issue with Butkovitz’s criticism that she and her campaign are going in reverse, that it makes more sense to go from being an outside financial watchdog to then becoming part of the administration to implement reforms from the inside. The city controller’s position is “a completely different job,” she said. And in any event, she added, her government and finance experience make her a better fit for the position than Butkovitz’s political background.
“He’s a career politician,” she said. “He’s been running for office since I was in high school. That’s his job.”
But if Rhynhart gets her way in May, she’ll be a politician, too. I asked her whether the Controller’s Office might be a gateway to a larger political career someday.
“I want to be controller because I want this elected position,” she said. “I think this is a position I’m very well qualified for – this position has the ability to do so much more than Butkovitz is currently doing. And I think I can do it; I can do it much better.”
Still, she says, the decision to run was partially a political one.
“I have to say, also, that Trump winning, for me, is something that really pushed me forward. I felt like I needed to step up, from a personal perspective.”
When asked why, she responded that two elements in particular drove her decision.
“The local government is more important now than ever, and I’m qualified to run for office, so I’m going to,” she said. “And if we have a president like Trump – I have to get used to saying that – it’s not going to be good for Philly, for cities. It’s not. Having a Republican president and Republican houses of Congress will not be good for cities. It just won’t. And I think we need better leadership at the local level. And in terms of the city controller position, it could just be so much better. So yes, I have an appetite for it, because I think I could be the city controller, and I could do it better. I thought about it, obviously, before Trump won. And then after Trump won, I thought, ‘The local level is more important than ever. I have to do this.’”