As Philadelphia looks to elect its next mayor, this week’s tragic Amtrak derailment was a reminder of the challenges big city leaders can face.
Mayor Michael Nutter (who is term-limited) has made a point this spring of urging voters to consider which of the candidates to replace him seems most ready to handle moments of crisis like he faced this week.
So, turning the tables, let’s ask: How did Nutter do?
Observers are mostly commending him for his response, despite one misstep during a TV appearance Wednesday evening.
But first, let’s look back at what Nutter had to say in an interview about leadership with NinetyNine, NewsWorks’ city elections blog back in February:
So, one of the things I say to folks is think about many of the things that have happened in our city. Good and unfortunately bad. Positive or not so positive. You have to think about, as you think about the next mayor, if you have someone that you are favoring at this time, you have to think about them in the context of doing this job…
Car wrecks. Trucks overturned. Water mains break. All sorts of things happen. Buildings fall down. Fires. And so, the mayor directly and indirectly sometimes is involved and very much aware of all those issues.
Henry Hughes is a retired investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board investigator and claims he has seen hundreds of incidents.
On Wednesday, the day after the Amtrak 188 accident, Hughes commended Philadelphia’s first responders and Nutter for how they, and he, handled the crisis.
“The guy had his act together,” he said. “He didn’t speculate, there wasn’t a lot of bull.”
But later that day, Nutter did speculate during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about how bad driving by the train’s engineer might be at fault. This came after reports emerged that the train had been going 106 miles per hour at the time of the crash that killed eight people and hospitalized dozens.
“Clearly he was reckless and irresponsible in his actions,” Nutter said. “I don’t know what was going on with him, I don’t know what was going on in the cab, but there’s really no excuse that could be offered literally unless he had a heart attack.”
Steven Fink saw that, and he didn’t approve.
“The only thing reckless was Mayor Nutter’s mouth,” said Fink, who was born and raised in Philadelphia and is now CEO of Los Angeles-based Lexicon Communications Corp.
Fink has literally written the book on crisis communications and says the role of a mayor in these situations is to comfort people, devote resources to the recovery, and not to prematurely assign blame. He says, however, one bad moment does not take away from the rest of Nutter’s performance, which he said was much more measured.
“I think that the people of Philadelphia are smart enough to realize that he obviously was very emotional,” Fink said.
As for Mayor Nutter, he says he was “just being myself.”
“We’ll see what the full investigation lays out, but I think I articulated what a lot of people were already thinking and wondering,” he said. “But it was in the moment.”