Type “Alan Butkovitz” into Google and the top search engine ad features a promising lead.

Alan Butkovitz Website | Mayoral Candidate | Learn more‎

But the link associated with that headline doesn’t connect you with an instructive campaign site for the Democratic ward leader. Rather, it links to a Billy Penn article from early March *about* Butkovitz’s campaign website, which had gone live in a disheveled state.

The real “Alan for Mayor” website looks better these days — but good luck finding it via Google search, where results pages are topped by this dinger:

For the record: Neither Billy Penn nor its parent company had any involvement with the ad.

To political junkies who’ve noticed the e-parlor trick, it seems perfectly clear who would benefit from promoting the flubbed launch of Butkovitz’s website.

Just do a search for state Sen. Anthony Williams, Mayor Jim Kenney’s other Democratic opponent in the upcoming May primary. The first Google ad also portends to be a mayoral campaign website, with language identical to the Butkovitz plug. The link, however, takes you to this 2015 PhillyVoice article that probed Williams’ charter school ties.

Ring, ring. Mr. Mayor? Hast thou been trolling?

That’s a firm “no comment” from the Kenney campaign.

As with the original website snafu, Butkovitz wasn’t aware of the Google ad until a reporter brought it to his attention. But he called it “petty insider baseball politics.”

“Kenney ends up hurting himself with this kind of stuff anyway,” Butkovitz said in a phone interview. “People are interested in the homicide crisis, the poverty crisis and the tax crisis.”

Williams’ campaign spokesperson Barbara Grant called the move a “a shameful act that seems kind of desperate” and called on the Kenney crew to disavow the stunt, as it distracts from the real issues.

Ah, the issues. In a way, this Google ad game is a fitting metaphor for the state of the mayor’s race in the sixth largest city in America. That is to say, it has seemed almost ornamental. In one corner is a self-assured incumbent. In the other are two candidates who seem to be having…internet issues.

(Pro-tip: The way to knock the troll off the bridge is to place a higher bid with Google for your own ad.)

Less than two months from E-Day, no Democrat been particularly visible on the campaign trail. Four years ago around this time, the mayor’s race was wide open with a robust field of candidates. It was a stamina test to see who could keep up with the endless nights of debates and forums and meet-and-greets.

This year, history suggests we’re looking at less of an election than a coronation. No incumbent Philadelphia mayor has lost a bid for a second term since the two-term limit was implemented via the city’s Home Rule Charter back in 1951.

Also, the field is a trio of already familiar faces. Williams, who finished second to Kenney in the 2015 Democratic mayoral primary, didn’t even formally announce his bid until last month. (His website is now up and running, by the way.) Butkovitz is a longtime Democratic ward leader who ran the City Controller’s office for over a decade, until his ouster in 2017 by a newcomer. Both are running against signature policies set during Kenney’s first term, from the soda tax to supervised drug consumption sites.

‘30,000 feet’ vs. ‘a city to run’

Butkovitz says Kenney is treating the race like a cakewalk. He accuses the mayor of shirking campaign events, citing a recent gathering at Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club in which the Kenney campaign sent a surrogate on his behalf.

“He wants to do a Rose Garden strategy,” Butkovitz said. “He’s flying at 30,000 feet.”

Kenney campaign spokesperson Harrison Morgan rejected that claim, while acknowledging the mayor does occasionally send surrogates.

“Alan has nothing else to do after being soundly rejected by voters two years ago for not doing his job well,” Morgan said. “Jim quite literally has a city to run. His primary focus is on his official events, but we schedule campaign events as time allows.”

Morgan said the mayor attended a number of political events in the last week: a smattering of ward meetings, a Democratic City Committee scrum, and a fundraiser for Councilwoman Cherelle Parker. But so far, the campaign has not agreed to any debates or forum, though Morgan said there will be news on that front soon.

Thirty thousand feet might be underestimating. Kenney’s campaign flashed more than half a million bucks as of its most recent filing, plus he has a cavalcade of outside political spenders who would jump to his aid if need be. Butkovitz said his campaign has raised over $100,000 as of Thursday. Williams’ mayoral war chest? Less than $15,000 as of January. Big money flooding the mayor’s race this year there is not.

‘These are all veteran candidates’

Polling data is scarce. One early poll, paid for by a pro-Kenney political action committee, showed the mayor dominating this three-way re-election bid with 58 percent of the vote, Williams 18, and Butkovitz 8.

Some argue that at least there are challengers — plural. When former Mayor Michael Nutter ran for his second term, he faced only one candidate, the perennial T. Milton Street, whom he trounced with nearly 76 percent of the vote.

Committee of Seventy director David Thornburgh said the rule of thumb is that a quiet race means people are basically content with current leadership — or at least not pissed off enough to rally the troops. And, he asked, are the challengers inspiring enough to galvanize voters against the incumbent?

“These are all veteran candidates who’ve run many times before,” Thornburgh said. “Fresh faces bring a natural excitement to the process.”

But good government groups take it as an article of faith that competitive elections are good for democracy. They push candidates, they stoke voter turnout.

At least in the last weeks, Thornburgh said, “I would love to see a robust, old-fashioned, energetic three-way campaign.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...