Politics

Out of the Blue

To say it's been a remarkable year for Michael Nutter is to understate the case. As the campaign for mayor of Philadelphia began last winter,...
by | September 30, 2007
 

To say it's been a remarkable year for Michael Nutter is to understate the case. As the campaign for mayor of Philadelphia began last winter, he was a presumed also-ran, a city councilman without connections struggling to stay out of fifth place in a five-man field. Nine months later, he is not only the all-but-certain next mayor but an anointed leader on whom his city has invested giddy hopes -- and imposed towering demands. He is the Seabiscuit of this year's American urban politics.

One afternoon in August, Nutter was sitting in his downtown campaign headquarters, trying to explain how all this happened. Part of it was crime, he said. Philadelphia's homicide rate has skyrocketed over the past 18 months, so crime was the dominant issue. Nutter took a chance: He came out in favor of aggressive police tactics including "stop, question and frisk." 1

This turned out to be a brilliant political stroke. While the other candidates

denounced him for trampling on civil liberties and insinuated that Nutter, an African American, wasn't sensitive to inner-city black concerns, Nutter just kept rising in the polls. "What voters realized is that this guy is taking a pretty big risk," he says, "but it's also pretty dangerous out there."

But it was more than crime. It was, in a peculiar way, Nutter's unusually cerebral style -- his wonkishness, to use the more popular term. His policy papers carry long lists of footnotes. 2 If Michael Nutter wasn't the most charismatic candidate in the field, it gradually became clear that he was the smartest -- or certainly the best informed -- and that he sounded like an honest man. The media endorsements started to come through, and they helped a lot. As Nutter puts it in his typically erudite way, "Third-party validation outside the campaign helped us a great deal."

Phrases like that reflect Nutter's life before entering public office. Born in Philadelphia, Nutter graduated from the Wharton School of Business at Penn and became an investment manager focused on public finance. Now, at 50, he's a veteran of two decades in politics, losing a race for city council in 1987 before winning in 1991. Although earnest and dedicated, he'll never be mistaken for a back-slapping politician. He was not one of the more popular council members among his colleagues. When he announced for mayor, not one supported him. 3

Qualities such as Nutter's don't often lift underdogs into office, but in this case, the timing was right. Philadelphia has endured a long series of scandals in the administration of its current two-term mayor, the semi-reclusive John Street. Nutter's seriousness, candor and image of rectitude lifted him to the head of the primary field in a remarkably short time, past two congressmen, a veteran state legislator and a billionaire businessman. It was not only a surprising victory, it was one achieved with remarkably balanced demographics. In a city where elections frequently boil down to black votes versus white votes, Nutter drew almost equally well from both groups. He got 37 percent among white voters and 40 percent among blacks. "He is really a post-modern black candidate," says Tom Ferrick Jr., a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. 4

When he announced for mayor, Nutter didn't have the support of Democratic Party leaders, unions or any other major interest group in the city. Now, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't expect big things from him. Mark Schweiker, a former Republican governor who heads the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, calls him "prepared and determined." Thomas Cronin, a labor leader who never seriously considered endorsing Nutter, calls him "an excellent city councilman." Even his token Republican opponent, Al Taubenberger, sometimes sounds as if he's joined the Nutter bandwagon. "He's a good man," Taubenberger says, "a very knowledgeable man." 5

The question is whether any new mayor can live up to the expectations that Philadelphia has built up for this one. His plans to "turn the city around" will, inevitably, displease a lot of people. And the tensions that have swirled about Philadelphia politics for the past generation have not dissipated; indeed, many of them have grown worse.

Businesses are complaining about a tax burden that remains one of the nation's highest -- and Nutter has promised to do something about it -- but with public employee labor contracts set to expire next year, unions aren't inclined to make concessions that would reduce costs and make tax relief feasible. Blacks and whites remain divided. Nutter's challenge when he finally takes office in January will be to make a lot of unlikely combinations work -- to find the right balance, again and again and again.

BOS-TROIT

In some ways, the past 15 years haven't been too bad for Philadelphia. In 1992, the city government faced a fiscal crisis that pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. But later in the decade, like much of urban America, the city enjoyed a modest recovery. Now, Center City, Philly's downtown, is in the midst of a building boom. Thousands of new residents are moving there. Overall, the city's population decline has slowed and the poor neighborhoods, the focus of the Street administration, are showing halting signs of improvement. "If you compared the neighborhoods in Philadelphia to 15 or 20 years ago, most are somewhat improved," says Wendell Prichett, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Nutter adviser. "Some are dramatically improved, some are marginally improved." 6

Nutter's message, though, is that this isn't nearly good enough. It's a message with which most Philadelphians agree. Philadelphians sometimes joke about their city as "Bos-troit" -- a place that combines the thriving downtown of Boston with the suffering neighborhoods of Detroit. While that's an oversimplification, poverty remains pervasive and economic opportunity limited. The schools, except when judged against their immediate past, still aren't very good. Unlike Boston, Chicago and most other cities that have done well in recent years, Philly still faces a critical abandoned housing problem. Large stretches of North and West Philadelphia remain a residential wasteland. To Ferrick, the question is this: "Were the '90s the start of something big -- or were they a brief shining moment in the history of urban decline?"

The answer may not be a happy one if Nutter can't do something about the crime problem. The "stop, question and frisk" policy is a big part of that. Nutter wants to allow police officers to search anyone they suspect of having an illegal gun. He intends to declare a disaster area in the city's most violent areas and focus enforcement there. Those areas are heavily African American, making the policy a risky one for a mayor who, even on a pre-election honeymoon, still strikes elements of the black community as being "not quite black enough." Nutter also has pledged to fire Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and to hire 500 more cops.

All of this is in response to a spate of gun murders, most of them drug-related. More than 400 people died from homicide in the city last year, a dramatic increase from 288 in 2002. Although the situation has been worse at times in the past -- 500 homicides were recorded in Philadelphia in 1990 -- the return of violent crime has become an incessant subject in the local media and has cast a pall over the city. The stakes are high, and Nutter raised them even higher by promising to run for reelection only if the number of murders drops below 288. 7

He likes to say that crime, economic development and education are all interconnected issues. What employers want, he says, is an educated workforce. In Philadelphia, barely 20 percent of the population has a college degree and nearly one-quarter never graduated from high school. Weak education means few jobs, which leads to more crime. Nutter favors a tax credit for businesses that hire offenders leaving prison. Businesses would be able to receive up to $10,000 for each one they employ. "People are going to do something," Nutter says, "They are either going to work on the civil side or the criminal."

To fix the schools, Nutter will have to go to the legislature in Harrisburg. In 2001, the state took over the school system, citing financial and performance problems. The mayor gets only two appointees on the five-member School Reform Commission. In the past few years, under energetic schools executive Paul Vallas -- who reported to the state, not the city -- test scores did go up. 8 But spending soared out of control. Earlier this year, the schools faced a $140 million budget shortfall.

Now, Vallas is gone, and what's left is a debate over whether state control should end. "The model coming out of Harrisburg was, 'We, Harrisburg, will show fiscal discipline and control,' " says Dick Hayden, a top adviser to Nutter. "It's more than a little ironic that under that kind of control we ended up with that kind of deficit to deal with." Nutter might be tempted to take over control of the schools himself -- as mayors in many other cities have done -- but that's a moot point for now. The state shows no signs of wanting to give it up.

The school situation is a symptom of a larger challenge: Philadelphia has what is technically a strong-mayor system of government, but in fact there are vast reaches of policy over which Nutter will have little or no control. He can't make decisions about SEPTA, the metro area's financially troubled transit agency. He will have little to say about two new casinos going up in Philadelphia, the result of a deal arranged by the legislature. Even the parking meters in the city are now operated by the state. "The mayor of Philadelphia has far less power and control than people think," says Phil Goldsmith, the city's former managing director. "We've become a very balkanized, fragmented government."

LABOR SHOWDOWN

Before his administration is even six months old, Nutter will have to find a solution to a problem that would be difficult for even the strongest mayor. He will have to negotiate a deal with the city's public employee unions, whose current contract expires in June. The negotiations will occur against a backdrop of looming fiscal trouble. Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority suggested that the next mayor will be asking, "What have I gotten myself into?" 9 They were talking about debt. The Street administration relied heavily on borrowing -- from $300 million for cleaning up blighted neighborhoods to $150 million in capital funds for arts facilities and commercial corridors. At the same time, public employee pension and health care costs are skyrocketing. Within a few years, they're expected to represent a quarter of the city's budget. Corrections costs are up dramatically as well. The budget surplus the city has enjoyed seems certain to disappear and be replaced by a shortfall. The labor negotiations will be critical to Nutter's ability to address it and will go a long way toward determining the city's financial flexibility for years to come.

Terry Gillen, a confidante of Nutter's -- and one of the few local Democratic leaders who supported him from the beginning -- knows what it's like to go through a budget crisis. She was deputy chief of staff under Mayor (now Governor) Ed Rendell, whose tough stand on union contracts is credited with having saved the city enough money to escape from the last fiscal crisis, in the early 1990s. But Gillen sees the current situation as different from the earlier one, and not necessarily in a way that works to Nutter's advantage. In Rendell's time, Gillen says, the extent of the city's fiscal plight was widely known. Today, many Philadelphians look at the Center City building boom and conclude that the city is in good shape, no matter what the pessimists might say. "The new mayor has to convince people that the budget's in trouble," says Gillen, "and there's not a widespread perception of that."

Nutter is already working on it. "I'm not one to start sounding alarm bells," he says, "but our pension fund is only 52 percent funded. Our health care costs, like for most entities, are spiraling through the roof. Our own city planning commission estimates that we should be spending $185 million a year to fix our infrastructure. This year we spent $60 million. We have to continue to invest in tax reductions because we still have, depending on how it's analyzed, the first or second highest tax burden of any city in the country. Our parks system is underfunded. Our waterfront is yet to be developed. You throw in a couple of snowstorms and a few other bad incidents, and before you know it, we could be in some very serious financial straits." 10

Labor leaders aren't buying it. Thomas Cronin, who stepped down in September as head of the union that represents Philadelphia's white-collar government workers, wonders how Nutter can talk about a fiscal crisis at the same time he calls for tax cuts and more police officers. 11 Other union leaders feel the same way. When it comes to the unions, and public attitudes toward labor and budget matters, Nutter has a lot of educating to do in a short time.

Nutter may face trouble from other labor leaders because of a campaign finance law he pushed through the city council. The law restricts the amount that individuals and political action committees can give to any candidate. There's no reason to assume that Nutter wrote that law to help himself, but in the primary campaign this spring, that is exactly what it did. "If that law didn't exist, we might not have won," says Terry Gillen, "because we wouldn't have gotten $100,000 donations from the unions or $100,000 donations from the usual suspects." 12 Other candidates would have had access to this money.

It remains to be seen whether union leaders will hold a grudge. Some of them don't seem to have gotten over it so far. "I believe that Nutter's best day may have been that May primary," says John Dougherty, who is generally regarded as the most powerful union leader in Philadelphia. 13

ANYBODY BUT STREET

The new mayor will have one public relations advantage: He can remind voters that they didn't choose him to continue the status quo. It would be more accurate to say that they chose him in large measure as an antidote to the departing Street administration.

That is ironic in a way, because Nutter started in politics as a protege of Street, serving on the council while Street was council president and then mayor. Years ago, however, the relationship soured. "They have a feud going on that borders on the obsessive," says Zack Stalberg, the former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, who now heads the Committee of Seventy, a good-government group. 14

As a member of the council, Nutter earned a reputation as an aggressive reformer, especially on issues of political ethics and corruption. An ethics law he pushed through was a largely a response to what's known in Philadelphia simply as "the bug" -- the federal wiretap of Street's office that uncovered a bribery scandal and ultimately led to the conviction of the city treasurer. Nutter's decision to seize on the scandal to change the government's ethical standards was an embarrassment to the mayor and turned relations between them even more hostile.

But Nutter took advantage of it. One of his ads in the primary campaign proclaimed that Nutter wanted to "throw out the bums in City Hall who have been ripping us off for years." In the commercial, a giant hand rips off the top of City Hall, its William Penn statue included, and shakes as cartoon people scream and crash to the street. 15 "The message was about John Street," says Gillen. "This guy is different than John Street. We knew that there were a certain number of people who still liked Street. We decided we would just lose those votes." 16

John Street isn't just a convenient foil for Nutter. He's also a cautionary tale. On the one hand, Street can list a set of tangible accomplishments. He oversaw the construction of two new stadiums, one for the NFL's Eagles and one for MLB's Phillies. In the battle against blight, his administration has removed more than 200,000 abandoned cars. Center City is flourishing. "The record of the Street administration," says Joseph McLaughlin, a Temple University dean and former Rendell adviser, "is better than many people would be prepared to say right now."

But Street will leave office next year an almost universally unpopular figure. Fairly or not, most of the city's residents seem to believe that Philadelphia's gains in recent years took place more in spite of him than because of him. In 2005, Time magazine labeled Street one of the nation's three worst mayors. 17

The City Hall scandals -- which have not reached Street personally -- have been the most important factor in tarnishing his reputation. 18 No similar issue is likely to be a problem for his successor. What Nutter does need to think about -- and he thinks about it all the time -- is the credibility that Street squandered by acquiring a reputation as an aloof man who kept to his office and disliked meeting the citizens. "Everybody's suspicions were confirmed as we went along," says Tom Ferrick, "that he wouldn't handle the public aspects of this job very well." If the success or failure of a Philadelphia mayor once depended mainly on his skill in working with a small political elite, those days are definitely over.

But when it comes to style, Nutter may have more in common with his adversary than he'd like to admit. Nutter, too, has a reputation for being insular. His inner circle is small. Most of his top advisers have known him for years. "I think Nutter and Street are very similar," Phil Goldsmith says, "and that's one of the reasons they don't get along."

The "aloofness" issue is one that Nutter has been working hard to deal with. During the primary, he pitched himself as the only candidate with a child in Philadelphia public schools -- a regular guy who cared about the city. 19 Nutter acknowledges the causes of Street's problems and pledges not to repeat them. "The mayor is ultimately the chief spokesperson for the city," he says. "Cities can take on the persona of their chief executive, I think, in ways that are different from their states or the country. You cannot allow government to become this faraway, disconnected place somewhere downtown; that big building with Billy Penn on top."

Michael Nutter may not fit the common profile of a successful urban politician, but as he prepares to take office, he's not lacking in confidence or, dire warnings notwithstanding, in optimism. "This city is about to go through a rebirth," Nutter insists. "What I'm hoping to lead is literally the renaissance of Philadelphia." Doing that will require him to face down a whole series of complex problems, some of which seem almost impossibly difficult. If he can handle them, he may be remembered as a hero. If not, he'll end up in the history books as a longshot who got lucky and managed to win one big race.


1. Stop, question and frisk was controversial within the campaign too. As Terry Gillen, one of Nutter's advisers, told me, "When Michael proposed the idea of stop, question and frisk, we were a little, 'Yeeeeaaaahhhh...are we sure we want to do this?' We went back and forth, but Michael said, 'What else are going to do?'"

2. Nutter's policy papers are available here.

3. The day after Nutter won, his fellow Council members did have nice things to say about him. As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "But the many moments when they found him stubborn and exasperating? Those memories have suddenly gone a little hazy." Here's the article.

4. Ferrick told me that Nutter's initial base was actually with well-to-do white liberals. He says that an early internal poll pegged his support from blacks at only 8 percent. But as the campaign of Congressman Chaka Fattah, the initial frontrunner, sputtered, Nutter started to move up.

5. I felt somewhat bad about not including more on Taubenberger in the article, although not so bad that I thought it was worthwhile to dedicate more words to someone who has no chance of winning. Taubenberger is the president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. "I've never been elected," said to me with pride. He thinks that the climate for business, and especially small businesses, in the city leaves much to be desired because of high taxes, high crime and an unresponsive bureaucracy. He expressed admiration for Rudy Giuliani and his "broken windows" approach to crime fighting.

In other words, he tried to run as a reform-minded, crime-fighting, tax-cutter against Nutter, who was also running as a reform-minded, crime-fighting, tax-cutter, but who had the advantages of being much better known and a Democrat. Taubenberger would have contrasted more favorably with Bob Brady or Chaka Fattah, the insider-connected congressmen who went down in flames in the Democratic primary. Also, Taubenberger's campaign Web site leaves something to be desired.

6. Earlier this year, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a fascinating report on Philadelphia, with comparisons to six other cities. The report followed up on a similar study released eight years earlier and identified progress over that time - largely due to improved civic leadership outside of government. You can read the report here.

7. Obviously, Philadelphia isn't the only city that's experienced an increase in homicides recently. One interesting theory I heard in Philadelphia is that this is an echo effect from the crack epidemic of the mid-to-late eighties -- that the children of crack addicts are now coming of age as troubled young adults.

8. Phil Goldsmith, who served as interim chief of the school district, gave me a baseball analogy to describe student performance: "It's like someone who has been hitting .190 and their batting average is now .220."

9. Here's the full report.

10. Lest you think that the budget situation has made Nutter pessimistic about his city's future, here's what he said immediately after that quote: "On the other hand, construction is still going fairly well in the city. The condo market remains fairly strong. Property values continue to go up in the city. We do have a 9,200-acre park system. We do have a waterfront that is yet to be developed and it's an incredible opportunity for us. Our convention center is about to expand and be one of the largest on the East Coast. It provides more economic opportunity for us.

"We're attracting some new businesses to come to Philadelphia because of some of the excitement and buzz going on in the city. New Yorkers and Washingtonians have also figured out that Philadelphia is still one of the most affordable cities on the East Coast, which is why many of them are buying real estate here in the city. We educate over 300,000 young people in the region at our 83 colleges and universities, one of the densest concentrations of higher education institutions anywhere in the United State of America.

"We are within a day's drive of 40 percent of the U.S.'s population. We're not just a transit stop between New York and D.C. We have a port facility that's increasingly going to get port work because of capacity issues in California. We've got infrastructure in the region for mass transit that other cities would have to spend billions of dollars for -- five different modes of transportation. You can get anywhere you want in the region on bus, trolley, the El, the subway or light rail. So, we have an incredible number of assets here. We've got all four major sports within a half-mile of each other in some of the newest facilities in the country. So, it's a great city."

11. Nutter's disagreement with the unions on taxes was a big reason he didn't win much labor support. Cronin seemed to genuinely like Nutter as a person, but he also told me, "He never met a tax cut he didn't like."

12. Gillen also said, "The only time I got nervous in this whole campaign was when that law was challenged and we thought the court might overthrow it." As it turned out, the contribution limits were doubly beneficial for the Nutter campaign. Not only did they limit special interest money that would have gone to other candidates, but also the lingering legal battle called attention to the difference between Nutter and his opponents. He was the candidate of reform, who supported the limits, while the others were the same old insiders, who opposed them.

13. Why is Dougherty so powerful? Besides his position as business manager for the local electricians union and other labor positions, he's also the chairman of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (appointed by Mayor Street), a commissioner on the Delaware River Port Authority (appointed by Governor Rendell) and the former treasurer of the Philadelphia Democratic Party.

14. I actually had a choice of quotes here. Ferrick told me, "Nutter's dislike of Street is absolutely intense, and I think it's mutual."

15. Watch the ad.

16. I was glad to get this quote from Gillen because Nutter and his supporters generally steered clear of criticizing Street by name, even though it was the subtext of their entire campaign. A typical remark by Nutter: "In the May election, and hopefully in the November election, the voters are saying that they want change."

17. Interestingly enough, in the same year National Geographic Traveler dubbed Philadelphia "America's Next Great City." For Street supporters, that's just more evidence that he is unfairly maligned.

18. It's an open question just how much corruption there was in the Street administration. For example, Stalberg notes that the top person to go to jail was the city treasurer, which is actually a fairly minor position. "There was the appearance of a sweeping political scandal," he says, "but the reality is somewhat less than that."

However, Gillen sees the "bug" as a symptom of a larger problem. She says: "There are many, many legitimate businesses around the country that would locate in Philadelphia and choose not to locate in Philadelphia because they don't want to deal with the corruption. In this administration, it has been blatant that if you want to do anything significant you have to befriend someone in the administration."

19. You can see a Nutter T.V. ad featuring his daughter here.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Politics