They want a leader who knows how to get things done, not just how to talk about getting things done.
Of the five men who have taken us through this meaty but weird Democratic primary campaign, two could live up to citizens' expectations. Three do not seem up to the task.
The most promising package of achievement, persistence, smarts and vision belongs to the man who led the forces of reform on City Council during the John Street era.
The Inquirer recommends MICHAEL NUTTER to Democratic voters as the best choice to lead their hometown on the road to Next Great City.
A record of reform
Nutter represented the diverse Fourth District for 14 years, resigning to run for mayor. On Council, he showed a knack for pushing good ideas up the steep hill they have to climb at a venal, complacent City Hall.
Nutter was the little engine that could as he accelerated cuts in the city's hated wage tax, over Mayor Street's resistance. He never listened to the chorus saying, "Michael, you can't get the votes."
Nutter was the stubborn Don Quixote who brought his windmill down, forcing City Hall to confront the shame its chronic corruptions had spawned. He spearheaded campaign finance reform, controls on pay-to-play, and the creation of a board of ethics that has already shown its mettle. He never heeded the voices carping, "It's Philadelphia, Mike, it'll never change."
Nutter also persevered to pass the smoking ban that has made eateries healthier for both patrons and workers.
On the issues
Anyone who has attended public candidate forums in this season of voter ferment knows that Nutter consistently shows the best command of issues and the sharpest wit.
He is easy to imagine on the national stage as the fresh voice of a resurgent Philadelphia, changing the narrative from one about bloodshed, corruption and dysfunction to one about new ideas, new energy, new partnerships.
So is Nutter fully ready for this close-up? Clearly he will have to grow into the job. Being the leader of the anti-Street resistance on City Council involves different moves from being a unifying but firm-handed CEO.
The new mayor will barely have unpacked his boxes when he'll have to face down city unions over the exploding costs of their pensions and health care. That will be a sharp test. But it was on Nutter's watch as chairman that the Pennsylvania Convention Center finally reached its elusive, cost-saving labor peace.
On gun violence, the issue that haunts this city, and this campaign, Nutter shows real urgency. His call for a state of emergency has generated valid concerns about violations of civil rights. But Nutter is also the guy who pushed for a civilian review board to rein in police abuses. He knows city police would need better training to use the tools he wants to give them.
Nutter grasps how badly the city needs to overhaul its crazy-quilt zoning code and to get back into the business of smart urban planning.
Nutter's bona fides on cutting the city's choking tax burden are clear.
More than most in Philadelphia politics, he understands how jobs - the key to addressing violence, poverty and blight - really grow. They grow out of private investment and entrepreneurship, not government busywork. Government's job, he knows, is to prepare the ground, through tax reform, services and infrastructure.
As for cleaning up City Hall, do you really think the fellow who worked so hard to get reforms into law would wink at backsliding on his watch?
All elections are choices among imperfect humans. Nutter - stop the presses - has flaws. His feud with Street has gone over the top. He's stubborn; stubborn is great when it's on your side, not so much when it isn't. His eagerness to display his intellect strikes some as arrogant, despite his self-deprecating humor.
Evans is the other option
If you don't want to vote for Michael Nutter, the Editorial Board urges you to consider the other fully qualified candidate: Dwight Evans.
Evans could be a fine mayor. This state representative has integrity and ingenuity. He has the guts to go for major change, the insight to pick the right approach, and the tenacity to make it happen. Without him, Philadelphia never would have seen John Timoney improve its policing or Paul Vallas its schools. Unlike many in this often-parochial town, Evans loves to learn from what has worked in other cities. He understands the violence issue in depth. He is respected across the state and across party lines.
But somehow, to the dismay of those who know and admire him, Evans has not connected with voters citywide in either of his runs for mayor. It's a mystery, but it's a fact. One facet of mayoral leadership is the ability to convey a vision and foster citizen buy-in. In this campaign, Evans has failed that test. It hurts to see it.
The good news is he remains a dynamic power in Harrisburg.
A team of Nutter in Suite 215 and Evans in the Capitol has the potential to do great things. Together, they could improve the rocky relations between the city and suburbs, between the city and the General Assembly.
Brady and Fattah
Now to the three others in the race, who in our view don't measure up as well to the hopes of the people.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady is charming and loves his city. He's the cooler head who can prevail when labor tiffs around town grow nasty. But he is also the chief custodian of a Democratic machine hip-deep in petty corruption.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, erstwhile frontrunner, has lost his lead in the polls with an odd, listless campaign. To his credit, he has contributed a needed focus on the city's heavy burden of poverty, and the role of education in ending it. But his stated goal, ending poverty, isn't really within a mayor's reach. His plans for it seem gimmicky and vague.
Knox: Outsider, or novice?
Finally, on to the phenomenon of the moment, Tom Knox, the self-made millionaire who's trying to make himself mayor by spending millions.
While his spending mocks the ideals of the very reform-minded citizens he seeks to court, you have to hand Tom Knox this: He has spent shrewdly. A candidate could spend piles of money, yet flop. Knox has risen in the polls.
Why? Knox's ads have lasered in on citizens' disgust with pay-to-play and their thirst for a clean start. His pitch - I'm the outsider who can scour City Hall because I have no debts to pay - sounds good.
Here's the problem: Knox is not so much an outsider as a novice.
When it comes to running a complex government, he clearly doesn't know what he doesn't know. He imagines it's just like running the many businesses he's owned and sold off. His performance in campaign forums betrays his limited grasp.
By his own account, his idea of leadership is telling people to jump when he says jump, and firing those that don't. He does not have the personality to persuade or to inspire.
In his lone, brief, much-hyped stint of government service, as a deputy in Gov. Rendell's first mayoral term, Knox showed his undoubted genius with numbers. He also showed his lamentable lack of people skills, which is why he was edged out the door.
Although Knox talks a perfect game on ethics, his record doesn't echo the talk. A man who thinks nothing of ignoring federal insurance law to hire an old pal with an embezzlement conviction may be missing a few points on his ethical compass.
As Knox will tell you, repeatedly, his resume is long on lucrative ventures, selling items such as insurance, liquor and payday loans. But, for a would-be mayor, it seems light on civic and charitable involvement. This so-called ethics crusader never even joined the city's leading watchdog group, the Committee of Seventy.
Not every businessman with a yen to run City Hall is Michael Bloomberg.
Philadelphia is poised on a knife's edge between further renaissance, or renewed decline.
This is no time to take chances on a stranger with a pleasing patter.
If you want ethics reform, go with the guy who has already done it against the odds. If you want tax reform, go with the guy who held its banner high on Broad Street through a political barrage. If you want more good jobs, go with a guy who knows how to help business grow them.
Our advice is: Go with Michael Nutter.
To hear the Editorial Board's endorsement interviews with the 2007 Democratic mayoral candidates, go to http://go.philly.com/candidates07