With mayoral primary looming, Nutter's leadership questioned
Thursday, June 24th, 2010
As Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter heads toward his re-election year, a bruising budget battle with Council has left him answering questions about his political acuity and management skills.
The Mayor has completed another budget season in which City Council has thwarted his will.
When Mayor Nutter first came into office he swung the doors of City Hall wide open – inviting the public to an Open House.
Thousands of people showed up to congratulate him and get a mini-tour of the hub of the city's government.
A lot has happened since that bright and hopeful day.
The international economic collapse left Nutter making controversial budget proposals from tax hikes to shuttering 11 libraries.
On a recent sunny afternoon, South Philadelphian David Brick stood where the line of well-wishers once waited outside City Hall.
“He's got a bunch of initiatives in this incredibly horrible economic time,” says Brick. “I feel, ‘Thank god Michael Nutter's the Mayor right now.’”
Since he took office Nutter has accomplished some big goals:
One of the city's row offices, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, has been folded into the city's court system.
In the May primary, voters overwhelmingly approved abolishing the Board of Revision of Taxes, which has been criticized for giving unfair property assessments, ineffectiveness, and political cronyism.
And from the time Nutter was elected Mayor through January, the city's homicide rate fell more than 20 percent.
Brick says he voted for Nutter the first time around and he still supports him.
“I think ideologues on both ends of the spectrum – they're always disappointed with what actually is happening in any government,” says Brick. “I wish the world was different than it was, but I see somebody in City Hall in the first time since I've been in Philadelphia – since 1993 – that seems to actually be operating outside of the habitual corruption of Philly politics.”
The Mayor has struggled to balance the budget and to get city council to approve his solutions. Most recently, Council rejected a soda tax and a trash collection fee.
From his office at Temple University, Michael Hagen can see the top of City Hall. The Associate Professor of Political Science says Nutter has faced a lot of challenges.
“It's been a difficult time for anybody in public service,” says Hagen, “especially for a leader of a large sprawling government. My feeling is that he has satisfied more people than he has disappointed to this point.”
Earlier this year Nutter's job approval was over 50 percent – up from a year ago despite the fact that in the interim he had to wrestle with another tough budget.
Nutter ran as a reformer, a champion of ethics and transparency, a guy who would clean up government and as one of his campaign ads said,
"Throw out the bums in City Hall, who have been ripping us off for years."
But Tax reform advocate Brett Mandel doesn't hide his disappointment at Nutter's performance. He says it would be one thing if the Mayor were failing: pushing for bills that were rejected by City Council again and again.
"But he's not doing that,” says Mandel. “Maybe he knows the numbers are against him and he doesn’t want to try. Maybe he thinks that by going along to get along in some areas he going to be successful in other areas. But I'd be hard pressed to point to notable successes along the lines of the things that he campaigned on.”
The Mayor declined to comment for this story.
“All best laid plans fall apart when the economy falls off the cliff,” says City Councilman Jim Kenney.
He says there are things Nutter's done well especially in the face of a bad economy but he says sometimes the Administration needs to be more willing to play politics.
Kenney says there seems to be a reticence on the part of the Administration to want to make deals.
“Making a deal does not mean doing something illegal,” says Kenney. “Making a deal means accommodating folks on their needs to get where they want to be so that they feel a sense of commitment and a sense of teamwork."
While Nutter and Council work out their differences, the Mayor also needs to make decisions about his run for re-election.
Temple University's Michael Hagen says, even though the Democratic primary is about a year away, it's really the next several months that will be important in determining the outcome of that election.
“Because so much depends upon the extent to which other people decide to get into the race or decide to stay out of the race,” says Hagen. “So the composition of the field that might challenge the Mayor in the Democratic primary is absolutely critical. And his concern over the next several months will be to position himself in such a way as to seem the inevitable Democratic nominee and to prevent other people from getting interested in getting into the race.”
Hagen says at this point he expects Nutter will be re-elected. He says something really unexpected would have to occur between now and the election to change that.
No other Democrats have thrown their hats in the race for Mayor yet but one Republican has already formed a committee to challenge Nutter next year.