Three Democratic candidates came with their game faces last night for a sharp and substantive debate at the WHYY studios, co-sponsored by the station, Young Involved Philadelphia, and the Committee of Seventy.

It was a little overwrought at moments, such as when challenger Brett Mandel all but accused Butkovitz of handing our wives and daughters over to sexual slavery. But in the main, Mandel, incumbent Alan Butkovitz and former city attorney Mark Zecca stuck to important issues and at times highlighted real differences.

PGW, PHA ... and the FBI?

Take the future of the municipally owned Philadelphia Gas Works, which Mayor Nutter has an interest in selling. Mandel said the controller should look carefully at the data and options, but that a sale might be the right thing. 

Butkovitz said PGW is now well-managed and attacked Mandel for taking "the Mitt Romney approach" in favoring privatization.

Zecca criticized aspects of Nutter's approach, saying he was awarding "pinstripe patronage" to bankers and brokers who would make money on the deal.

The central issue in the debate was whether Butkovitz, a two-term incumbent, is tough enough and independent enough as the city's elected watchdog.

The sharpest exchanges, shown in the video above, came over the controller's past role in the governance of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Until the board was recently reorganized, the controller appointed two of the five PHA board members, and both Zecca and Mandel said Butkovitz and his appointees had done nothing about the abuses that led to the firing of executive director Carl Greene.

"He had two people on the board. And when there was a meltdown at PHA, because he was a serial sexual harasser — the head of the housing authority. The press went to Alan at the time, and he said, 'Well, oh, I don't know anything about that,'" Zecca said.

Challenger Brett Mandel took that line of attack even further.

"He saw no evil at PHA. You heard no evil at the traffic court," Mandel said, addressing Butkovitz directly. "You spoke no evil when associate and supporter after supporter had been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They should rename the FBI 'Friends of Butkovitz Interrogated.'"

No member of Butkovitz's staff has been the target of an FBI probe. I asked Mandel whom he was referring to later, and he mentioned other political figures with whom Butkovitz has relationships.

Butkovitz, who defeated Mandel for the nomination four years ago, responded in part by mocking Mandel.

"Brett's very blithe and very cute," he said, "but we're the only controller's office in 60 years that has invested the resources and become a credible anti-corruption agency and is referring cases to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office."

Mandel eventually said, "Alan, that could have been my wife, that could have been your wife, that could have been my daughters," referring to the victims of sexual harassment at PHA.

Some analysis

My take: Butkovitz's representation on the PHA board is not his proudest moment. He re-appointed the wife of city Democratic chairman Bob Brady, when he might have had an independent housing expert or someone with more experience in government on the task. It's also fair to say a lot of powerful people in Philadelphia overlooked or tolerated Greene's conduct.

The Butkovitz vs. Mandel show is an entertaining and familiar act by now. They duked it out four years ago, and Butkovitz won re-nomination handily. Zecca was the new face in the mix. He came across as sincere and knowledgeable from his many years in the city law department, though at times less focused than his rivals.

And there was a Republican candidate on stage, Terry Tracy. I didn't focus on him here because he's unopposed in the May 21st primary. But he made an impressive showing and should serve up a lively fall campaign.

Finally, even though he's my boss, I have to say that Chris Satullo did a superb job as moderator. And I was mightily impressed at the turnout generated by our friends at Young Involved Philadelphia and the Committee of Seventy. It was the kind of evening that inspires some hope in the city's future.

Update

I wrote earlier in the piece that no member of Butkovitz's staff had been the target of an FBI probe. Critics of Butkovitz got in touch, and it turns out there was one.

Theresa Pinkett, a former consituent services worker in the Controller's office pled guilty to extortion committed there in late 2006. She was charged with accepting $1,200 for helping someone with a real estate issue while in the Controller's office, and taking $5,000 and a cell phone from someone years before while she working in City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller's offfice.

Butkovitz said he didn't know Pinkett well, but that her husband had worked for his campaign. He said he knew nothing about the case until the day before charges were announced. Neither Butkovitz nor Miller were accused of wrongdoing. Pinkett pled guilty in January, 2008 and was later sentenced to 18 months in prison.

You can read the federal charges here.


Video by Charlie Kaier