Back in January 2008, as Michael Nutter was taking office as mayor amid loud hosannas, a Philly native named Shirley Franklin visited town to give a speech.
At the time she was mayor of Atlanta, a successful one. I interviewed her in her suite at the Loew’s Hotel.
Sitting regally on a sofa, her trademark flower in her hair, she issued a prediction. It was so dead-on I now wish I’d thought to ask her who was going to win the next four Super Bowls.
“These young mayors,” she began, referring to a class that at the time included not just Nutter, but Adrian Fenty in Washington, Cory Booker in Newark, and Antonio Villaraigosa in L.A.
“They come in so full of themselves, wanting to change everything. I try to tell them: Don’t try to be the mayor of everything. At any moment, in a big city, something is sure to be going wrong somewhere. And if you’re the mayor of everything, you’ll get blamed for it. I tell them: Just be the mayor of a few big things, one, two or three at the most. If you pick the right things, and you focus really hard on them, you can be a success. “
Franklin sighed and added, “But they never listen to me.”
That night, Franklin had dinner with Nutter; I’m sure she offered this advice.
And, what do you know, he ignored it. He tried to be the mayor of everything. He issued grand goals for huge things over which he had next to no control – like the graduation rates of kids in city schools – and a host of little things
He spent his first year in office taking a very slow, windmill windup for the 837 amazingthings his team was going to do once it got done holding retreats and fashioning Powerpoints.
Then the global economy collapsed, and the city’s budget along with it, and that became the one big, hairy thing of which Mike Nutter became mayor. He became the mayor who closes libraries.
On one level it’s ridiculous. The degree to which Philadelphians, particularly black Philadelphians, blame Nutter for the woes wrought by Wall Street and lax regulators is crazy. The degree to which a corruption-weary citizenry doesn’t credit Nutter for running a scandal-free administration is surprising. (Unfortunately, other local agencies not under his direct control keep the embarrassingly headlines coming.)
On the other hand, Nutter did try to be the mayor of everything. And he gets blamed for things that aren’t his fault, in addition to those that are.
Still, Michael Nutter is a man most lucky in his enemies. He’ll face no serious opposition for re-election this year. He’ll get a real second chance, a shot at rebirth.
If he wants to seize it, he’d do well to remember what Shirley Franklin told him at dinner that winter night in 2008.