Mayoral candidate Rebecca Rhynhart speaks at a forum on March 14. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

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Rebecca Rhynhart is, in a very 2023 way, playing the middle. 

In an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate like Philly’s, that means appealing to progressives and moderates alike; in this race in particular, Rhynhart’s campaign is based on her insistence on competence and organizational knowledge. 

Buoyed by a couple years worth of audits and reports that trace her political sensibility and expertise, and some notable endorsements, the former city controller appears — though there have been no public independent polls — to be among the race’s frontrunners. 

Why? A hint may be found in the tradition of finding past analogs for political candidates. When it comes to Rhynhart, her candidacy has several times been compared to Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

The comparison is based on style more than political stance or experience. Rhynhart’s many years in municipal government — from the Nutter Administration’s Treasury and Budget Offices to her year as Philly’s chief administrative officer to the five years as city controller — have marked her out as a technocrat more than Warren, formerly an academic, ever was. 

But the core of both Warren’s and Rhynhart’s support lies in a similar quality: a progressive-presenting wonkishness that employs the language of efficiency and rationality more than the rhetoric of social movements. 

The P-word(s): Philly’s ‘progressive’ planner?

Recent events have given some substance to the Warren-Rhynhart comparison: 

Rhynhart’s latest ad features the candidate saying she’ll expose “hard truths” about how the city is run, and use “data-driven plans” to address those pressing issues. 

While many candidates like to tout plans, years of analyzing and critiquing the implementation of plans across various city agencies lend it extra credibility. Her progressiveness seems derived from analysis and planning instead of grassroots organizing. 

Beyond winning plaudits from former mayors Street and Nutter, Rhynhart has won the endorsement of the 5th, 8th, 9th, and 15th wards, all open wards located in Center City and Chestnut Hill. (In 2019, Helen Gym was the top vote-getter among at-large Council candidates in all of these wards.)

An open ward vote isn’t necessarily a signal of who’s destined to win the actual popular vote in an area, but it’s indicative of what kind of voters find Rhynhart appealing: generally well off, whiter, motivated Democrats open to voting for progressive-leaning candidates, i.e. the Warren camp

One thing to note: Warren’s campaign simply didn’t bring together a sizable coalition that extended beyond these kinds of voters in terms of race and class. The city’s voters are more diverse than the national electorate in many ways, and Rhynhart’s campaign is working to avoid that fate.

Going by open ward endorsements, Gym does appear to have some of the same base — she won the nod from the 1st, 2nd, 18th, 22nd, and 39a, demonstrating support in parts of Center City, South Philly, Fishtown and Mt. Airy. 

The Inquirer’s editorial board endorsement gives Rhynhart credit as a top strategist, emphasizing her distance from machine politics and the powers she had to examine and critique the nitty gritty of city government, and exuding a certainty in Rhynhart’s data-based decision making. 

For the love of …

The most recent campaign finance reports for the primary lend some credence to the Warren comparison.

Rhynhart is second only to Gym regarding the number of unique donors, a figure that’s swelled by a large number of smaller (≤ $100) contributors. Warren’s 2020 campaign was relatively powered by small donors, amassing more small donations than most other candidates. 

The majority of Rhynhart’s contributions, small or big, are from the city

Like in presidential contests, small donor figures do more to indicate the breadth of voter support, in terms of those willing to give money at least, than the economic lifeblood of a campaign — big donors and PAC money (or self-funding) are still the key to running a viable campaign, particularly in this crowded cycle.  

For instance, in the first three months of the year, Rhynhart’s campaign raised $642,375, $568,180 of which came from contributions over $250. Twelve of the contributions to her campaign came from political committees — including Delco First, Wawa, and the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 19, among others — garnering $51,200.

Additionally, a third party group called Philadelphia Leadership PAC has been formed to support Rhynhart, grounded by $100,000 from Richard Vague, a venture capitalist and prominent Rhynhart backer. 

The PAC’s finance filings note that it has over $90,000 yet to spend, and it’s very likely that more money will flow through the organization the closer we come to May 16. 

Rhynhart’s campaign reported having $853,539 on hand at the end of the most recent filing period, which ended March 27 — with more funds to come as they push on to primary day.

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Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...