Philadelphia Is Still Waiting For A Mayor Who Will Be A Fighter

(November 2009)


When Mayor Nutter won the mayoral primary, I emailed a message titled “2007 Primary Election Results: CHANGE!!!” and highlighted it with a picture of Tug McGraw at the 1980 World Series victory parade holding up a Daily News that offered the headline “WE WIN”.  But now, like so many, I am not as enthusiastic about the Nutter Mayoralty as I had been when he won.  


During his campaign, Michael Nutter aired a commercial that outlined the bold and decisive moves he would make as Mayor.  It concluded by declaring he would “throw out bums in City Hall who have been ripping us off for years” and underscored the point by showing a hand literally ripping City Hall tower from the rest of the building and shaking out the hacks and pinstriped patrons as they wailed and thudded onto Broad Street.  But that kick-ass candidate has been much less of a can-do Mayor. 


Mayor Nutter balanced the city budget by raising our taxes, which are already too high, and stiffing the city’s pension fund, which is already woefully underfunded.  Even with these moves, the budget still counts on completing negotiations for new contracts with the city’s unionized workforce to save millions.  If the Mayor does not achieve savings in those new contracts, more money for salaries and benefits will blow another hole in the budget that will drive him back to the drawing board looking for new revenues or new cuts. 


What happened to the crusading Mayor who was going to throw the bums out?  Vast bastions of political patronage remain intact and agencies Nutter once declared he would “blow up” conduct business as usual.  Through his first two years in office, Mayor Nutter has simply not been the man who promised bold ethics reforms, major bureaucratic shakeups, and dramatic governmental overhauls.  Instead of building the coalitions and popular support necessary to win major reforms, the Mayor has too often been content to go it alone, play an inside game, and expect reform advocates to cheer him on from the sidelines.  By not engaging the outsiders, the Mayor has had to occupy himself with winning support for his plans from insiders who are unwilling to embrace major reforms. 


What happened to the popular Mayor who was going to bring us together to tackle our most challenging problems?  Watching Nutter cruise to a huge victory in November 2007 with nearly 90 percent of the vote; it is easy to forget that not so many Philadelphians voted for him when they had a real choice.  Nutter won only 37 percent of the Democratic Primary — nearly two-thirds of voters in his own party voted against him.  He won by appealing to true-believer reformers who wanted action in many areas ignored by previous Mayors, and by attracting the support of party insiders who feared the prospect that wealthy businessman Tom Knox might govern as an independent outsider who did not depend on the party for his electoral ascension.  Nutter attracted us to him because of who we thought he was and who we knew he wasn’t.  With fewer true believers left believing, and with party insiders divided as ever, it is unclear whether Nutter has any base of support left to build upon.


What happened to the savvy Mayor who understood City Hall and knew how to get things done in the no-holds-barred world of Philadelphia politics?  Watching his performance to date, it seems as if Nutter has learned few lessons in his time in City Hall.  He saw Mayors cultivate a core group of support on Council to stand strong in the face of insurgent pressure, but seems to lack the nine votes necessary to pass legislation on a routine basis.  He watched Mayors exert their authority for years, but does not seem to know that if one develops the reputation for “crying wolf” early, opponents will soon call every bluff.  When his political power was strong, Nutter did not spend political capital to win battles and cement alliances to expand his power and now that his power has waned, his opponents know he is in no position to make demands.


We are left with a Mayor who can still talk reform, but has been unable to deliver change; a Mayor who is not unpopular, but has been unable to build the necessary coalitions to push for change; and a Mayor who is a product of Philadelphia politics, but has been unable to use his political ties to make change.  Far from wrenching the tower off of City Hall, Mayor Nutter might have a hard time right now tearing the top off a cereal box.  It seems the bums will keep on ripping us off and we will endure more years of a Mayor who will be at the mercy of his political opponents — and in no position to deliver on the renaissance he promised when he took office. 


But, as I do with the Phillies, I rant as a hopeful fan and I know that we can bring positive change to the city we love.  I believe that Mayor Nutter can regain the reform mantle and recapture the promise of his election if he engages Philadelphians in an effort to push for the changes he championed in his campaign.  If he is ready to lead, I know that Philadelphia cries out for the changes he promoted and I know that so many stand ready to help rip the tower off of City Hall to make true reform a reality.