Bucks County Leadership: Rebecca Rhynhart, Controller of City of Philadelphia
Rebecca Rhynhart, City Controller of Philadelphia, spoke with BUCKSCO Today about her childhood in Abington and the lessons she learned from working at a pet store and aquarium as a teenager. She also talked about her “non-linear” career path, from working for a publishing company, to almost joining the Peace Corps, to overseeing government finance, before being elected city controller.
Then, Rebecca explained why she’s considering running for Mayor, hoping to break up entrenchment in city politics and solve issues like gun violence. She also shared the best advice she’s received from another renown Pennsylvania politician.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Madison, Wisconsin but moved to Abington when I was six years old.
What memories do you have of growing up in Abington?
I grew up near the Baederwood Shopping Center, so I’d spend time there. There was the grocery store, the movie theater, and the deli, Murray’s. I went to junior high and high school in Abington, graduating in ’92.
Did you play any sports in high school?
Not really. I was always interested in politics and foreign policy. I did the World Affairs Council. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I went to Thailand on a community service trip. I was not the typical teenager.
When you look back at high school, how did you distinguish yourself?
I was definitely a good student. I graduated in the top 10 percent. But at the same time, I wasn’t someone who was the class president. I hadn’t fully figured myself out.
Did you have any jobs while you were growing up?
I worked at Martin’s Aquarium. It was a big aquarium and pet store at the corner of Washington Lane and Old York Road. I started working there during my junior year. Everyone starts as a fish catcher. Then after about two weeks, they put me on the cash register. They put me there because I smiled a lot, and they thought my smile would be good when people were waiting in long lines. And I could balance the books, so they kept me on the cash register and had me close out the books at the end of the day.
What lessons did you take from that job that still stay with you today, Rebecca?
It was a good work environment, people really liked working there, and I saw a real sense of teamwork. I was always looking for ways to improve things while I was working there too. I would say, if we moved this section over here, people wouldn’t get backed up trying to get to this product.
And I worked a lot of hours. I worked probably 15 to 20 hours a week during my senior year.
Did music play a role when you were growing up?
There are definitely songs that remind me of that time period. In college, I became a little more interested in music. But I remember listening to Nirvana and the Chili Peppers then.
You were a good student. Where did you end up going to college?
I went to Middlebury College in Vermont. I wanted to go somewhere different. I also thought at the time that I would go into international politics and Middlebury has an excellent language program.
I fell in love with Middlebury. I visited it on the most beautiful April day, and everyone was so friendly. I applied early decision and got in!
Looking back, was Middlebury a good choice for you?
Yeah, I loved Middlebury. It was a great learning environment. The classes were small. The professors were accessible and would invite the class for dinner at their house. There was a lot of debate and focus on critical thinking and thought processes.
You mentioned that you hadn’t found yourself in high school. When did you start to find yourself and come into your own?
My career path is very non-linear. I got through college and still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked for a publishing company, part of Harcourt Brace, for a few years right out of college. I was an editorial assistant for a year and then became a sales rep.
I never thought I would be a sales rep, but there was a competition for who could be the best sales rep in the editorial office, and I won. In my first year as a sales rep selling textbooks to Philadelphia-area professors, I won a spot in the company’s top 10 sales club.
I think I started to realize that I could be successful by combining my analytical thought process with my people skills. But I knew I didn’t want to be doing this long term. At the same time, I still didn’t know what I did want to do.
I applied to the Peace Corps and got into Vladivostok, Russia. I had a conversation with my uncle Leon, who still credits my whole career to this one conversation. He said, “Do not go to the Peace Corps.” I started grad school at Columbia shortly after.
What did Leon see in you?
It’s interesting. He always just thought that I had natural ability and talent. He said, “Don’t do the Peace Corps – you can do something more focused.” He’s always been very supportive. As I’ve run for office, he’s told me, ” you can do it!”
Looking back over your career, who were the other people who saw promise in you and opened doors?
After Columbia, I got hired in the financial services industry. I worked at Fitch Ratings for a few years. They hired me even though they there were people who were more qualified and had banking experience before grad school. But they hired me because they liked how I questioned things during my interview. They told me, “We’re hiring you because we think your mind works in a more inquisitive way. You have some courage in your questioning.”
I continued down the private sector route for a while – I went to Bear Stearns and was promoted to managing director there. Then I decided that I needed to refocus and do something I love, which is working for government.
I was successful at Bear Stearns – I got promoted to managing director and headed the risk group dedicated to municipal derivatives. I looked at trades with local governments across the country. I saw a lot of governments not making the best decisions for themselves. I thought I had to go work on the other side of this. I have to go help people and be part of the solution. I’ve always felt that government needs to work better.
Mayor Michael Nutter hired me as city treasurer. I didn’t know him beforehand – I applied with my resume through the standard process.
He took a considerable risk hiring you?
You could say that. Mayor Nutter didn’t know me, and no one knew me in the political world in Philadelphia, but I was definitely qualified.
When you got into the job, was it more than you expected?
I loved it. It felt rewarding. It was in the middle of the financial crisis, so our interest rates at the city of Philadelphia, our variable rate, went from 1 percent to double digits overnight on hundreds of millions of dollars of debt. Everything had to be restructured. It was very busy, but I definitely liked it and liked helping the city navigate the crisis.
Then after two years, Mayor Nutter asked me if I would become the city’s budget director, which was a promotion. It took him a few days to convince me, especially because my daughter was 5 months old at the time. I thought, “I’m just getting the balance here in my life – being a mom and being back at work.” But I decided to do it, and I excelled in that role and learned a lot about government operations.
As you look forward, why are you considering running for Mayor?
I want to mention that in addition to Mayor Nutter, former Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell has helped me a lot.
After eight years working for Nutter, I worked for Jim Kenney for one year as his chief administrative officer. I had about a thousand employees under me for that year.
Then I decided I’d seen enough of the issues within Philly government and the problems because of the entrenchment in Philly politics. I thought, “if I’m going to make this city work, I have to run for office. I have to break the entrenchment up to make it work.” That’s when I decided to run for city controller.
At that point, I was introduced to Governor Rendell. I was running against an incumbent in the Democratic primary and was not expected to win. I went to meet Governor Rendell in December 2016. The election was in May. He supported my opponent in the previous election, and I had never met him. But I talked to him for an hour about what I wanted to do and how I thought that city politics needed to change, that we needed to modernize and break up entrenchment. And he said, “Great, I’m going to be with you.” I said, “Really? But you were with the incumbent last time.” And he said, “That’s because you weren’t running last time. I think you’re the future.”
I had about 70 fundraisers in three months. Governor Rendell went to at least 10, probably 15, of them. He endorsed me and helped me with fundraising.
I ran in the Democratic primary. I did not have the support of the Democratic party. I had one ward leader’s support out of 69 Democratic ward leaders. And I won with 58 percent of the vote.
I think the success of my campaign showed how much the people of Philadelphia wanted change and wanted their government to work differently, to work better.
So why run for Mayor of Philadelphia?
As city controller, I can audit. I highlight waste, misuse of dollars, and fraud, analyze issues, and make recommendations. But I can’t make the Mayor do something. I can’t implement.
Right now, I have close to 15 years of executive experience working for the city. I know what works, I know what doesn’t. I love this city, and right now, our city has so many challenges. I love our neighborhoods and our sports teams, and our restaurants – we’re a great city and region.
Can you speak about some of these challenges?
We’re facing significant challenges. They’re solvable, though! Gun violence – one of our biggest challenges – is solvable. I’ve been saying since 2019 that there are strategies that work to get this violence down. And there are issues we might, as a city, seem far apart on, like how do we approach policing? How do we approach some of the major issues? But I think there is a path forward.
I talk to everyone. I speak to activists, I talk to business leaders, I talk to everyone in between. I have a very open-door policy. There are things we all agree on. We have to get the crime under control, and it’s doable. We have to fix our education system. We need clean streets. These issues are solvable. I think the city needs vision, strong leadership, and some courage to say, “Look, this is what we’re going to do,” and do it.
So, what do you do with all your free time?
I’m a jogger – I’m not fast enough to be a runner, but I just ran the South Philly 10K. I spend time with my family – I have a daughter in seventh grade and my husband. And I read, mostly nonfiction. And Netflix – I do binge-watch.
What was the Netflix last series that you binged?
I watch a lot of shows that people haven’t heard of, with subtitles. Right now, I’m watching a show called “Rita,” which is a European comedy-drama. It’s very popular in Europe. And the Israeli show “Fauda” – an awesome show.
What about reading? What was the last book you read that you really liked?
I read “The Color of Law,” which is very good. To be a good urban leader, you need to understand the history of racism and redlining on a deep level in order to fix it. The history isn’t always taught, so I think it’s essential to learn it.
I read “Lincoln on Leadership.” I’m a big Abraham Lincoln fan. There was a story I read in one book where he was frustrated with one of his generals for not invading the South, for being too cautious and timid. The Civil War was dragging on, and he eventually got on his horse, rode down, and led the troops himself. I love that story.
What keeps you hopeful and optimistic, Rebecca?
The people I talk with every single day. The people of our city. I really believe, from talking to people from all different areas of our city, different groups, that we are, underneath it, more alike than different. Everyone I talk to wants a safe neighborhood, a good school to send their kids to, and job opportunities. When you get down to that crux, understandably, there’s a lot of emotion and feeling, but we can solve it. And then think about how amazing the city would be.
Finally, Rebecca, what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
A piece of advice that has helped me a lot in being an elected leader is something Ed Rendell said to me in my first month or two of office. I was in a very public fight with Mayor Kenney back in 2018. My office did an audit that showed the city hadn’t reconciled its largest cash account in three years, and $33 million was unaccounted for. The Mayor was mad at me for making it a big deal, but it is a big deal. It was very public, and there was a lot of backlash against me from political people and the Mayor.
Ed Rendell called me, and he said, “Dear” – he always calls me “dear” – “you’re doing great.” I told him, “There are people who are calling me and telling me I’m not going to last, that if I upset things so much, I’m not going to last.” And he said, “Lead in the way that is right for the city, and the politics will follow. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I want you to do.”
That’s what I think about, honestly, almost every day. I say, the people decided to have me as their leader for this job. I work for the people. I don’t work for this club of electeds.
My group is the people, and the politics will sort themselves out. It’s not always an easy mantra to live by, but it is one that I hold myself to.
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