Controller Candidates Bloom Despite Strong Incumbent

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BY TONY WEST/ Shaping up to be the top contest in next spring’s municipal primary is the race for City Controller.

Although this office doesn’t command much attention from voters, it is vital to city governance. As its independent auditor, the Controller is the only check on the mayoral administration. His position requires continuous study of all city agencies as well as the School District, giving him a comprehensive grasp of government affairs second only to the Mayor’s.

Two-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz shows no inclination to relinquish his seat.  He’s asked the right questions and probed where necessary to make the city and schools more aware of their economic faults, making recommendations in the process.

As he is also the Democratic 54th Ward Leader and enjoys a strong web of citywide connections, it will be difficult to dislodge Democratic City Committee support for him.

Despite these facts, quite a few aspirants are eyeing Butkovitz’s seat.

At the head of the Democrat line is Brett Mandel, who challenged Butkovitz in 2009. An employee of the Controller’s Office under Butkovitz’s popular predecessor Jonathan Saidel, Mandel has solid credentials in public financial management. Like the incumbent a native of Northeast Philadelphia, Mandel earned a Master’s at Penn and now lives in Center City. He has gained a reputation as an articulate, detail-oriented critic of Philadelphia fiscal policies.

Mandel already has campaign ads running, with the slogan “Civic Watchdog” atop taxicabs and has been diligently fundraising for months.

Michael Williams, an African American who is an announced gay Catholic, also looks good on paper. He is weighing his chances. Williams is an attorney who specializes in forensic auditing. No stranger to city government, he spent six years as a senior attorney in its Law Dept. and also served as the City’s deputy finance director. Before that he was deputy finance director/executive director of the Minority Business Enterprise Council. A Temple graduate, he earned his law degree at Penn.

Mark Zecca has also made clear he’d like a go at it. A veteran of the City Solicitor’s Office with extensive government experience and many accomplishments (for one, he successfully sued SEPTA to stop it from dropping transfers), Zecca has a reputation for integrity.

Zecca also enjoys good tribal connections as the son of Tony Zecca, legendary press secretary and deputy mayor under Mayors James Tate and Frank Rizzo.

Names also mentioned as possible entrants for the Controller race include Mariska Bogle, daughter of Philadelphia Tribune publisher Robert Bogle and an expert in media and government relations; Loree Jones, who was managing director under Mayor John Street and is now chief of staff of the School Reform Commission, needs no introduction to city government and has been approached for a possible run; and Street’s son, attorney Sharif Street, who is seldom shy about seeking elective office.

In 2009, Republican City Committee Executive Director Al Schmidt ably represented the Republicans in the general election for that office. Schmidt is now comfortably ensconced as the City Commissioner.

This year, Melvin Johnakin, Jr. of Eastwick, has shown interest in the GOP nomination for Controller. An entrepreneur of decades’ standing, Johnakin has been active on nonprofit boards and has stayed involved with public affairs.

With so many candidates in the field, lively backroom dealings and odd public coalitions may form over the next 11 months.

One speculation has it that if Mandel is frustrated by developments during the Democratic primary, he might even defect to the Republican race, where his hard-nosed fiscal habits would be respected. Mandel tends to draw from circles with progressive leanings, but he is impeccably bipartisan in his focus on professional practices and has not shied away from public criticism of more than one Democratic elected official.

Butkovitz would seem to begin with an edge at this early juncture. However, it is no secret the Controller would be happy to take a shot at a higher office someday.

Suppose the incumbent Controller opts out in March 2013, so he can fortify his efforts to seek the mayoralty. This strategy worked for another municipal incumbent who resigned early to begin a successful campaign for Mayor – emerging with a huge fundraising lead as a result. Councilman Michael Nutter, he was then.

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