Phila. mayoral vote: 'It's like pulling teeth'

With Michael Nutter expected to win big, low turnout could affect statewide judicial races.

Posted: November 04, 2007

After a sleepy, six-month campaign that is among the oddest in recent memory, Michael Nutter may be about to make some rather unwanted history: taking the mayor's office with a record low number of votes.

Even as some experts predict that Nutter's margin of victory Tuesday over Republican Al Taubenberger may be unparalleled, turnout could be as low as just one in five registered voters.

It is not necessarily Nutter's fault, or something likely to undercut his mandate, but it is clearly something that the Democrat long regarded as Philadelphia's next mayor would like to avoid.

Toward that end, he has run TV campaign ads daily for nearly a week.

Even a few days out, Nutter continues campaigning as if in a close contest, attending nightly meet-and-greets. And he hammers home his tough talk about what's at stake for city Democrats if they don't vote: Republican domination on the state's high courts.

Despite those efforts, the dismal turnout forecast didn't seem to brighten at all last week.

A half-dozen local election veterans interviewed for this article estimated turnout as low as 20 percent - and none forecast anything higher than 35 percent.

"There's no excitement there whatsoever," said City Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell, secretary of the Democratic City Committee and a big influence among African American ward leaders. "It could be that people think the election is over."

That view was shared by Ralph Wynder, veteran leader of the 38th Ward, which includes East Falls and upper North Philadelphia, the heart of Nutter's old City Council district.

"You can try to relate the importance of the state Superior and Supreme Courts to their everyday lives, but it's like pulling teeth," Wynder said of city voters. "The reality is folks see this election as a done deal."

In May's five-way Democratic primary, about one-third of the 12,000 registered voters in Wynder's ward cast ballots, the majority for Nutter.

Come Tuesday, Wynder is hopeful, but not overly confident, that turnout will reach 25 percent at least.

"There's a lack of interest in the mayor's race, and there are few contested Council races," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, an election watchdog group.

The lowest turnout in a mayoral general election in decades happened in 1995, when 39 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Mayor Ed Rendell's successful race against GOP challenger Joseph M. Rocks.

Some political experts see this year's race as comparable, with Taubenberger, like Rocks, failing to engage voters and his Democratic opponent in a meaningful and persuasive debate.

Taubenberger has jokingly referred to himself as the "super-underdog" and has not bothered to release policy papers. Except for two issues - the anticrime "stop-and-frisk" proposal and property taxes - he has almost taken pride in agreeing with Nutter's stated vision for the city.

Also, while maintaining a relatively active campaign schedule, Taubenberger raised a paltry $120,000 - compared with Nutter's $7 million-plus.

In one poll two weeks ago, Nutter led Taubenberger, 74 percent to 8 percent.

If Tuesday's gap is similar, Nutter stands a chance of breaking a different record: In his 1995 race against Rocks, Rendell was reelected with 77 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than any Philadelphia mayor had received since 1932.

Even one of the city's most experienced political hands - U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the Democratic Party chairman - said last week that he was "nervous" about a low turnout, adding it might hurt the efforts of Democrats in races for two Supreme Court seats and three openings on Superior Court.

For Nutter, a good showing at the polls could enhance his political strength, and would provide him with more momentum as he officially becomes, as long anticipated, the mayor-elect.

But political experts say that no matter how many, or how few, voters come out, Nutter will walk away with as much a mandate as he needs.

"The fact is that he was able to win an election under strict campaign-finance rules, and without any major endorsements by traditional Democratic constituencies," Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler said. "His endorsement came from voters."

St. Joseph's University history professor Randall Miller echoed Ceisler. "His mandate was already established in May," he said. Any significant voter turnout at this point, he added, would be "less a mandate than a coronation."


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

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