The rhetoric is heating up in 1993 Fels Institute of Government graduate Brett Mandel’s bid to unseat Alan Butkovitz as Philadelphia City Controller.
The City Controller oversees audits of the city’s budget. It is an elected position largely to ensure independence from the rest of the city government, since it is in a position to criticize through regular audits, Fels’ Executive Director David Thornburgh said.
The two Democrats also battled for the same position in the 2009 Philadelphia municipal election, where Butkovitz prevailed over Mandel in the Democratic primary. But this time, Mandel sees his campaign differently.
“I certainly gained experience as a candidate,” Mandel said in regards to the 2009 race. “I have been working to raise more money to build more and deeper political connections and to communicate my vision to groups and residents across the city.”
The candidates and their supporters have fired tense rhetoric back and forth for months. A Twitter account named @MandelExposed has been tweeting insults and other inflammatory rhetoric about Mandel’s campaign since October. A former employee of Butkovitz in the Controller’s office set up a website called “The Real Alan Butkovitz,” which accuses the current Controller of various political favors and of overlooking conflicts of interest.
In person, the candidates haven’t been much shyer about their less-than-amicable opinions of each other.
“He’s a show man,” Butkovitz said of Mandel. “He very much wants to be in politics. But he very much has a thin record and does not have outreach to the broad Philadelphia community … He just tries to say things that are shocking or attention-getting.”
Mandel released an interactive tool on his website last week which shows to where and whom the city’s budget is allocated. Butkovitz alleges that the data on the site shows several inaccuracies, including the number reported as Butkovitz’s own salary. Butkovitz and other employees return part of their salaries to the city each year, he said.
“As City Controller, accuracy is the watchword,” Butkovitz said. “If you put out reports where the numbers are wrong, you have absolutely no credibility.”
Mandel shot back that he has not been approached by anyone alleging inaccurate information, and that the fact that Butkovitz has returned part of his salary for several years does not imply that his data should reflect a truly lower number.
“To say that his salary is reduced is incorrect,” Mandel said. “To say that he gave some money back to the city might well be correct.”
Specifically, Mandel cited that pension benefits are calculated on total salary from the city, not on net money they receive.
“I would say that [Butkovitz] is not doing his job, period,” he said. “So any money that we’re giving him in salary is not money that he deserves.”
Mandel worked in the Controller’s office for eight years after graduating from Fels. He cited the school’s emphasis on “dual competency” — both understanding how government works and being able to make it work oneself — as important to his decision to run for public office.
“It’s a good balance between the theory and the practice,” he said. “Most of our professors were also practitioners.”
Mandel worked for Thornburgh at the Pennsylvania Economy League soon after his graduation from Fels. Although he did not know Mandel during his time at Penn, Thornburgh said that he is proud to see another graduate demonstrate an intention to go into public service in Philadephia.
“I think he has a good sense of the potential of the office,” Thornburgh said. “He cares about Philadelphia a lot, [and] is raising a family here. We’re very proud of him as one of our graduates.”
Back on the campaign trail, as the two candidates continue to throw each other verbal blows, no one seems to expect the rhetoric to die down by Election Day. Mandel pointed to the primary election on May 21 as the most important date for the campaign.
He couldn’t even remember the exact date of the general election.
“In Philadelphia,” he said, “if you win the Democratic primary, the rest takes care of itself.”
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