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At midterm, Nutter faces tough times and tough critics

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010



Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter came into office two years ago this week on a wave of optimism and reform. He was elected by a broad cross-section of the city, black, white, business people and progressives. But for many of those who greeted his inauguration with cheers, surging hope has been replaced by grumbling and disappointment.

For more voices on the mayor’s performance, visit It’s Our City.

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On Inauguration Day 2008, Michael Nutter’s words rang with optimism.

Nutter: We now find ourselves on the brink of greatness and a great opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the city, the region, the country and the world that Philadelphia is on the way back.

Nutter promised a new day, and a new way. He promised to cut the murder rate in half, double the number of college grads living in the city and increase the city’s population. And in fact murders are down and the city’s population has finally stabilized. But halfway through his term, conversations at dinner parties and lunch tables among the city’s business and government elites still question Nutter and his team.

Nutter: What I hoped was that there would be a step by step plan that would help us get to those aspirational goals in a reasonable period of time but in some cases we’re still waiting for that step by step plan.”

David Thornburgh is the director of the Fels Institute of Government.

Thornburgh: My concern is that if all you state is a lot of aspirational goals and then you roll out a less than comprehensive strategy to get you there, you just end up reinforcing the cycle of cynicism about people who over promise and under deliver.

Thornburgh says he’s concerned about labor contracts that have yet to be completed.

He and others say one of the biggest problems is that Nutter, a former district councilman, has had a hard time shifting roles from lawmaker to executive.

Phil Goldsmith was managing director under Mayor John Street.

Goldsmith: When you’re mayor, the issues find you and you can’t run from them. You got a cop shot, boom, that becomes, there’s your week right there. There’s your issue. You gotta budget crisis, boom, you gotta do that. So it requires a different mindset that requires a different strategy of how to get things done.”

Some observers cut Nutter some slack because he’s been stuck with one huge problem no one predicted: the Great Recession.

Zack Stalberg is with the government watch-dog group The Committee of Seventy.

Stalberg: I certainly am disappointed and just about everyone I talk to feels the same way. He has had a huge challenge in front of him that none of us expected and that is the huge economic crisis.

Stalberg says Nutter needs to improve his relationship with City Council, where even some of his ardent supporters have soured.

During the budget crisis last winter, Nutter got no traction on Council with his push for a property tax hike. But he did manage to take Council’s preferred approach, a sales tax hike, and sell it to skeptical Harrisburg lawmakers.

Republican state Senator Jake Corman says for the first time, upstate lawmakers have a positive relationship with a Philadelphia mayor.

Corman: You know we make a living up here beating up on Philadephia but we understand that the city is the most important in the state, its an economic driver and so anytime you have a positive working relationship it’s easier to get things done.

Some critics say Nutter frittered away his first year in office. Goldsmith and Thornburgh say he has little time left to become an effective mayor. But others, disagree. Businesswoman Judy von Seldeneck is a former President of the Chamber of Commerce.

Seldeneck: Well I don’t buy that, I think two years is a long time. I think there’s more than enough time. I think he’s got the right people in place. I think he’s set a tone. I think the best is yet to come. I head up the private sector outreach board for the Chamber of Commerce, and he’s been able to bring the private sector into public service and people are enthusiastic, excited, they want to help and I havent seen that kind of cooperation in this town in a long long time.

Some neighborhood-level leaders say they are still waiting for the Nutter Administration to include them in policy decisions. Matt Ruben is President of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood association.

Ruben: At least from the community perspective, what we’re seeing is the city is struggling with how to govern. The city is struggling with how much to rely on top down expertise versus bringing in communities and civic organizations to be part of the process and we’re seeing a lot of push and pull on that.

Bilal Quayyum is head of the Father’s Day Rally Committee and worked for five different mayors. Quayyum says people on Nutter’s team are clearly smart, but don’t seem to be dynamic managers.

Quayyum: Good folks, bright folks. They can do the reports; they got more information. That’s fine but how do you translate that into programs and implementation to get something done in the city of Philadelphia. That’s the one weakness I see in the Nutter Administration.

Quayyum says he doubts the current Managing Director Camille Barnett understands the city’s residents, or has even made it out to the neighborhoods.

Nora Lichtash runs the Women’s Community Revitalization Program in Kensington. She says she was thrilled when Nutter was elected.

Lichtash: I think there are a lot of supporters of Michael Nutter in this neighborhood and I think they continue to be supporters in this economy. But I think people are very fearful. It’s hard to be supportive of any politician at this time.

Mayor Nutter says he expects 2010 to be just as challenging, and his focus will be on jobs.


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