Nutter's delicate dance of election and governing

Posted: September 09, 2007

Michael Nutter's campaign manager, Tricia Enright, opened a Webcast with supporters Thursday with these words:

"Now, we need you to redouble your efforts to send a message that the citizens of Philadelphia want change."

This figures to be the mantra from Camp Nutter for the next two months, an attempt to remind Philadelphians that there is another election Nov. 6 and to make the case that mere victory, however likely, is not enough.

The goal is to generate renewed fervor about the Democratic nominee, the kind that gets voters to the polls and provides the winner with the clout to get things done once he assumes office.

"When you get sworn in, you don't get a magic wand to go with it," Nutter said in a recent interview. "You need public enthusiasm to attack the tremendous challenges that confront us in fighting crime, lowering taxes, improving education. I want a high turnout, and I want people fully engaged in the prospects for the future."

The former city councilman, who got 37 percent of the vote in winning the Democratic primary in May, will give more politically attuned audiences an additional argument, having to do with the statewide judicial races on the ballot this fall.

"There are two Supreme Court seats up and one Superior Court seat," said Nutter, who is backing the Democrats for all three. "A lot of cases that affect the quality of life in Philadelphia - having to do with schools, zoning, gaming, guns - wind up in those courts. Other people from others parts of Pennsylvania are hoping for a low turnout in Philadelphia."

Some political veterans are skeptical about whether either appeal will boost the vote, especially considering that Al Taubenberger, the amiable but underfunded Republican candidate, has done little to distinguish himself from Nutter.

"Having an extra 50,000 people come out would be nice, but I don't think it's going to happen," said Neil Oxman, Nutter's media consultant. "Turnout is going to be what it's going to be. The mandate for change is still going to be there."

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 5-1 in the city, political professionals consider a Nutter victory a foregone conclusion. But they are divided over how much the turnout and margin really matter.

"Being seen as someone who's politically and electorally strong helps you govern," said Dan Fee, who twice served as Gov. Rendell's campaign spokesman. "If I'm a City Council member, I don't want a mayor with a 75 percent approval rating coming into my district to pick a fight with me."

Said William R. Miller IV, a politically active public-relations executive: "The important thing now is to start building a team, to work toward creating an increased constituency of stakeholders. I understand that he doesn't want to look arrogant, but people already are referring to him as mayor, treating him as mayor."

Nutter's aides are trying to strike a balance between respecting the political process and preparing to govern. They are working on policy documents intended as action options for a new mayor more than position papers for a candidate.

But the candidate remains leery of appearing to get ahead of himself on personnel matters.

During the Webcast, for instance, participants submitted questions about whom Nutter might choose to run the Police Department, Fire Department, Water Department and Zoning Board of Appeals.

Enright, the host, didn't put them to the candidate, who wouldn't have answered them anyway.

On the subject, Nutter says only that he will search far and wide to find the best people when the time comes. Oddly, that statement - the far-and-wide aspect of it - is one of the few with which Taubenberger has expressed disagreement.

During a candidates' forum last week, Taubenberger said he was certain that the next police commissioner and the next chief executive of the school district (who will be selected by the School Reform Commission) were to be found within the city limits.

"I am sick and tired of hearing that someone who knows how to do the job couldn't possibly be in Philadelphia," Taubenberger said.

With his looking-for-best-practices trips to other cities out of the way, Nutter said that for now he would focus on campaigning for the next 58 days. There is no percentage for him to say anything else.

How well he manages to plan for the future while living in the present won't be apparent until after Nov. 6.

"The expectations for Nutter are very high, and he knows that, and those expectations are not about how much he wins by," political consultant Larry Ceisler said. "They're for his going back to his office after being sworn in and signing some executive orders that mean something."

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or

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