The city's fiscal watchdog who was first elected as a political outsider is now running to lead the government she spent the last five years auditing.
Rebecca Rhynhart, center, has announced a run for mayor.Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer
Rebecca Rhynhart on Tuesday resigned as city controller and announced she’s running for mayor on a pledge to carry out the financial, organizational, and public safety-oriented reforms she’s for years urged from the outside.
Rhynhart, the independent fiscal watchdog who’s twice won citywide election, will try to appeal to residents who want a pragmatic leader to navigate the city’s gun-violence crisis and progressive voters who want sweeping reform.
In an interview at her Center City campaign office, Rhynhart said spending the last five years critiquing city government, and the 10 years before that working inside it, primed her to steer Philadelphia through a precarious time.
“I spent the last five years from the outside saying, ‘This is what’s wrong, and this is how to fix it,’” she said. “I can take all that and hit the ground running.”
Rhynhart officially kicked off her campaign with a news conference at West Philadelphia’s Nichols Park, which she said has seen 15 nearby shootings and eight homicides so far this year. She chose the park to highlight the city’s gun violence crisis and her plan for fixing it, she said.
“The answer isn’t to go backwards to ‘law and order’ policies that were racist,” said Rhynhart, speaking alongside her husband and daughter. “The answer is to move forward. We can both be safe and reform our criminal justice system at the same time. As your mayor, I will implement the proven intervention strategies that have been shown to work.”
Rhynhart, 48, joins an increasingly crowded field of Democrats who are jumping into the race ahead of next year, when voters will choose who will succeed term-limited Mayor Jim Kenney — the executive with whom she has most often clashed.
The other candidates who have announced campaigns so far include three now-former members of City Council: Cherelle Parker, Derek Green, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. A fourth, Allan Domb, resigned in September to consider a run. Philadelphia’s charter requires city officeholders resign their posts before seeking higher office.
A Philadelphia mayoral field has never included at least three female contenders, and a woman has never been elected mayor. Rhynhart was the city’s first female city controller.
She will likely be replaced as controller, at least temporarily, by one of her top deputies. It’s still unclear if or when a special election would be held to fill out the remainder of her term, which ends in January 2026.
With her family beside her, Rebecca Rhynhart, right, announces her run for mayor at Nichols Park in Philadelphia.Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer
The mayoral candidates are trying to separate themselves as the city faces fears of a looming recession as well as a shortage of municipal employees that’s making basic delivery of services complicated. For Rhynhart and other contenders, the top issue is crime and the two-year spike in shootings that led to last year being the deadliest on record.
She’s been deeply critical of the Kenney administration’s response to gun violence, and she’s announcing her campaign one week after her office released the results of an eight-month review of the Police Department that found operational and strategic flaws across the force.
Rhynhart said she felt an obligation to see through the police audit. But once it was released, she wanted to start her mayoral campaign — even though her launch comes just weeks before a midterm election that’s dominating the political discourse.
“I’ve made my decision,” she said. “There’s no benefit to holding back at this point.”
Rhynhart’s announcement prompted what appears to be the first jab between contenders in the mayoral race.
Green, who resigned from Council and announced his candidacy in early September, on Tuesday spoke with reporters outside City Hall to contrast Rhynhart’s work on gun violence issues with his experience as a former prosecutor.
“The next mayor can’t just issue reports, and pick and choose issues they want to engage in,” Green told reporters outside City Hall. “In order to fight crime and gun violence, you need someone who had that background experience. As a former assistant district attorney, I fought crime as a prosecutor.”
Outsider no more
Rhynhart, who grew up in Abington, spent her early career on Wall Street, working in public financing at Fitch Ratings and then as a managing director at Bear Stearns, an investment bank.
She left in early 2008 to take a job as city treasurer in Philadelphia. Three weeks later, Bear Stearns collapsed.
Rhynhart worked for eight years under Mayor Michael Nutter, rising to the role of budget director. Kenney hired her in 2015 to be chief administrative officer, a position she held for less than a year before she resigned to run for controller.
Some party insiders were miffed when she launched a run in 2016 against three-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz, a ward leader and party fixture. Political observers didn’t think Rhynhart, a former mayoral aide and political novice, could win. But she proved an adept fund-raiser and spent most of her war chest on television ads portraying herself as a reformer and Butkovitz as a “political hack.”
It worked. She won the primary and easily prevailed in the 2017 general election. She cruised to reelection in 2021, and the chatter among Philadelphia’s political class immediately turned to the 2023 mayoral race: Could she contend?
Rebecca Rhynhart chats with Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. after speaking at Strawberry Mansion Day at Mander Playground last month. TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
The next seven months will tell. Rhynhart may face one or two candidates who can self-fund their campaigns, and other contenders may have closer relationships with leaders of the city’s Democratic establishment.
Still, Rhynhart can’t call herself a political outsider anymore — she’s built relationships with donors, fund-raisers, and other elected officials. She said she’s going to tell voters her experience makes her positioned to rise above politics to make city government work better.
“I know the issues. I know how to fix them,” she said. “I’ve examined best practices from other cities and made recommendations to fix these issues. And they’re fixable.”
‘We can’t have that failure’
Mayors often have adversarial relationships with city controllers, who are expected to audit the administration’s performance.
But when Rhynhart was running, she promised to try to build a better relationship with the mayor. She said it didn’t have to be a dogfight — she could identify problems and make recommendations, and then the mayor could implement them.
She admits now that it didn’t work out that way.
Clashes with Kenney started not long after she took office. In 2018, her office released an audit identifying hundreds of millions of dollars in bookkeeping errors and arguing Philadelphia had the worst accounting practices among large cities. Kenney said that her statements were “sensationalized” and that her office had “recklessly inflated dollar figures.”
In this 2018 file photo, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Mayor Jim Kenney appear next to one another at a news conference at City Hall.HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
In early 2021, Rhynhart said Kenney failed to protect the city and its residents in mid-2020 when the city was gripped by unrest after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Her office investigated law enforcement’s handling and portrayed the city’s actions as the most aggressive Philadelphia police response to civil unrest since the 1985 MOVE bombing.
She released a critical report on the city’s understaffed prisons system last year, and has twice published reviews of the city’s antiviolence spending plan, which she has described as inadequate and lacking in urgency.
All of it, she said, has produced a laundry list of recommendations to improve the delivery of city services, from public safety to trash pickup.
“Safety, clean streets, education, and equity — all of these things are part of what governments are supposed to do,” she said. “And right now, our city government’s not doing it. We can’t have that failure in our city.”
Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed reporting.