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Rebecca Rhynhart is the first woman elected as City Controller of Philadelphia. (Photo by Philadelphia City Council | CC BY-NC 2.0)

Penn Democrats hosted a virtual dialogue on Zoom on Monday featuring Rebecca Rhynhart, the first woman elected as city controller of Philadelphia. 

Rhynhart discussed her responsibilities as city controller, her involvement in criminal justice reform efforts, and her experiences as a woman in politics at the event. About 15 students gathered on Zoom for the virtual event.

As city controller, Rhynhart oversees the city’s finances and operations for both the City of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia. She is also responsible for investigating accusations of corruption against city agencies and employees. She previously served as Philadelphia's city treasurer and budget director.

“My job is the financial auditor of the city, but I am also a city-wide elected officeholder, so I want to use my voice and my power to stand up for what's right,” Rhynhart told attendees.

Rhynhart also discussed her efforts to push for criminal justice reform. In October, Rynhart published an opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer that called upon Mayor Jim Kenney to address the “inhumane” prison conditions for both inmates and correctional officers. She said she had received a significant number of complaints from both correctional officers and family members of inmates about poor living and working conditions in the facilities. 

“My office of operations looked into what is going on at the prisons. What we found was that while the inmate population has stayed relatively constant since 2019, the number of correctional officers has declined drastically, so they were locking down, and still are locking down the prison for many hours — 20 to 23 hours a day,” Rhynhart said. “Inmates could not leave their cells. I went to the prisons twice in June and again in August to examine what was going on and see firsthand what was going on, and it's completely horrifying, honestly.” 

Rhynhart called on the city to hire more correctional officers to stabilize jail operations. Since publishing her article, Rhynhart said the issue has only worsened and will need continued action from the city’s elected officials. 

Rhynhart also said that she is “honored” to serve as Philadelphia's first female city controller, adding that she believes it helps to shape her work and some of the areas of city politics that she oversees.

“I think everyone brings their life experience and who they are to whatever they do … So, of course, I brought that [aspect of identity] to my job,” Rhynhart told event attendees. 

She also said she found the sphere of Philadelphia politics to be a male-dominated workspace, but that with self-confidence and determination, students can work past the obstacle of gender biases. 

“In terms of obstacles, I think there's definitely times when there's an interaction that I have that I walk away thinking it was very gendered or odd," Rhynhart said. "I would just say to the women here — and to all of you — just do not let someone else tell you that you can't do it, whatever it is that you want to do, because it's always better to try and balance something then not to try at all. That’s kind of been my motto in what I do." 

College sophomore Leo Cassel-Siskind, one of the event attendees and a member of Penn Dems, told The Daily Pennsylvanian he was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the responsibilities of the city controller, especially as a Philadelphia native. 

“I always think turnout in local elections, especially being from Philadelphia, is really important,” Cassel-Siskind said. “Turnout in Philadelphia elections is typically pretty terrible, and so I think it's important to bring these [locally] elected officials in so that the students can understand the importance of the job that they do, not just for themselves, but as students, people that are here for four years and are part of the Philadelphia community.”  

Rhynhart told the DP that she enjoys participating in events with college students looking to get involved in government and politics. 

“I love Philadelphia, and I hope that the passion I have for this city will resonate with future leaders currently exploring their interests and possible careers,” Rhynhart wrote in a statement emailed to the DP. “As someone who didn’t follow a linear path, I think it’s important for college students to be exposed to people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives and experiences, so they can better understand all the opportunities available to them.”