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Code for Philly / Elections / Technology

Philly tech vs. the Democratic machine

How Rebecca Rhynhart's victory in Tuesday's primary shows the nascent power of the local tech scene.

Rebecca Rhynhart, Democratic nominee for City Controller. (Courtesy photo)

At 9:49 p.m. last night, Rebecca Rhynhart tweeted to confirm what was already buzzing on social media: she had unseated three-time incumbent Alan Butkovitz as the Democrats’ nominee for City Controller.

“The Democratic machine is on its death bed, y’all,” tweeted Philly Mag’s senior reporter Holly Otterbein. In her article, Otterbein called the victory “yet another sign that the power of the city’s Democratic machine is waning.”

Congratulatory replies followed from a slew of Philly tech scenesters like data scientist and former City technologist Lauren Ancona, tech investor Brett Topche, Comcast’s Danielle Cohn and Jarvus developer Ben Novack.

The City’s former Chief Administrative Officer became a more visible face to the tech scene in May 2016, when a shakeup of the City’s tech staff structure put Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski and his team directly under her watch, following a turbulent couple of months under new city Chief Information Officer Charlie Brennan. Rhynhart’s office was a safe haven for the Wisniewski’s civic tech team to do their thing. (In her role as Chief Administrative Officer, Rhynhart did have oversight over the Office of Innovation and Technology, and thus Wisniewski’s team. The May 2016 shift removed a layer of bureaucracy.)

“This new structure elevates the prominence of the initiatives of open data and digital transformation,” Rhynhart said then. Prior to that position, which she held for just under a year before resigning to hit the campaign trail, Rhynhart spent six years as the City’s budget director. The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News specifically mentioned that experience in their endorsements.

In those early days of the Kenney administration, as Brennan drew the ire of civic-minded technologists, Rhynhart positioned herself as someone who understood the importance of open data and that elusive concept of innovation. It was a savvy move, since the departure of Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid had left the civic tech community hungry for a champion. In February, Northern Liberties web dev firm Jarvus, a convener for the civic tech set, hosted a meet and greet with the candidate. Jarvus cofounder Chris Alfano, also the cofounder of civic hacking group Code for Philly, was one of the local technologists and entrepreneurs who made it clear they were supporting the candidate.

(On the other hand, Rich Negrin, the city’s former managing director who was instrumental in hiring Ebeid and a vocal champion of innovation, among other things, was not able to ride said innovation wave to victory in the District Attorney’s race, despite some support from influential tech community members like Bob Moul and Raheem Ghouse.)

As a candidate, her campaign platform focused heavily on two tech-related issues: modernizing the methods used for audits and releasing open data  (Also, another very tech-y move: the campaign HQ was a Center City  MakeOffices location. She got a shoutout from the coworking space’s local Twitter account.)

We last saw Rhynhart in her CAO role back in October, joining Wisniewski in the PHL Innovation Lab as the duo presented the Beta version of the City’s website. She mentioned the final version (is there ever such a thing?) of the portal would be rolled out at some point during 2017. The event was an accurate final memento of the interaction between Rhynhart and the civic tech team: she was there supporting the initiatives and projects but allowed enough independence for the technologists to do their thing.

Rhynhart also won support from Code for Philly Executive Director Dawn McDougall. “It’s no secret that I was a big supporter, and Rebecca did a great job of engaging younger voters who her opponent had long overlooked,” McDougall said Wednesday. “She was connecting with urbanists in the city who could activate and mobilize an untapped group of voters.”

Code for Philly itself, though, remains neutral in terms of candidates. It is, after all, the local brigade of nonprofit Code for America, a 501(c)(3) national organization which declares its non-partisan status on its website.

“It’s important for us always to clarify when something is my personal position versus what is Code for Philly’s position,” McDougall said. “Often times, me making that statement doesn’t fully divorce my personal persona from Code for Philly in people’s minds. That said, part of why I support Rebecca is that she is aligned with many of the values we hold at Code for Philly. She cares about open data and government transparency, and she was a big supporter Code for Philly while she was the Chief Administrative Officer.”

The 42-year-old Rhynhart will face Republican nominee Mike Tomlinson on November. If she wins, which is likely, looks like tech will secure yet another ally in local government.

What to make of it all? This is the first time we’ve seen the civic tech community so actively organized around a candidate. We’re not trying to say that they’re the sole reason that Rhynhart won, but in a primary for a position that many people have never heard of, their voice undoubtedly counted. Rhynhart’s race shows that the tech community — at least one corner of it — is eager to throw their weight behind someone they believe in and perhaps more notably, it shows that the tech community has that weight to throw around.

We’ll be interested to see how Rhynhart’s supporters work with her going forward. Will we see her build a team of civic-minded technologists? Will the tech community keep tabs on her and hold her accountable to her campaign promises? And how does a community do that with a role like controller that’s not as constituent-facing as, say, City Council? We’ll keep you posted.

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