'Tough job at the worst possible time': Mayor Nutter, two years later

Mayor Nutter, with Gov. Rendell (right), announcing the end of the SEPTA strike last week. The head of the union called it "Nutter's Strike," and it was Rendell and Rep. Bob Brady who helped end it.
Mayor Nutter, with Gov. Rendell (right), announcing the end of the SEPTA strike last week. The head of the union called it "Nutter's Strike," and it was Rendell and Rep. Bob Brady who helped end it.
Posted: November 17, 2009

IF YOU'RE Mayor Nutter, you could be excused for feeling a little bruised lately.

The transit union president publicly mocks you, calling you "Little Caesar."

That's after you had to back down twice this year in fights with City Council over property taxes and city pensions.

You even hear stories of theater audiences' booing your cameo in the film "Law Abiding Citizen."

The little slights would be easy to shake off if they weren't emblematic of a deeper frustration with the mayor that comes up in lunch meetings, boardrooms and phone calls across the city.

Though few will say it publicly, there is a growing concern among some elected officials and political insiders that after almost two years in office, Nutter's political clout has dwindled, that his administration is struggling and that his policy agenda has stalled.

"I don't know if there's anybody out there [who] feels good about what he's accomplished to date or doing now," said Brett Mandel, former head of the tax-reform organization Philadelphia Forward. "The gamut runs from folks who were really enthusiastic and are now soured, to folks who are underwhelmed but still holding out hope."

The two-year mark could be a difficult point for a mayor under any circumstances. The political honeymoon is long over and fatigue is setting in. And, as Nutter's supporters point out, he has also been faced with a global economic crisis throughout most of his term. They say that he should get credit for balancing the budget amid massive deficits, as well as other successes, like overseeing a decline in the homicide rate.

"I think the mayor has performed amazingly well in incredibly difficult circumstances that nobody could have anticipated," said Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, who served as chief of staff to then-Mayor Rendell. "I can't disagree with you that there are people who are expressing unhappiness. Unfortunately, I think that sort of thing comes with the territory."

Nutter is now looking ahead to another tough year in which he is expected to make further budget cuts and still must negotiate cost-saving contracts with the city's four municipal unions - both efforts that could get him more enemies. And on top of that, he has to launch his bid for re-election in 2011.

Still, Nutter said yesterday that he is hopeful about the future, and stressed that he thinks most Philadelphians still want him to succeed.

"Whatever the criticism may be, and I understand it and I acknowledge it . . . the number one comment I get is, 'Mayor, you're doing a very tough job at the worst possible time and I know you're doing the best that you can,' " Nutter said.

Budget blues

Nutter, who sailed into office with a resounding general-election win, saw his problems begin last fall, when he announced the first in a series of budget gaps. A proposal to shut some libraries raised community ire. Later, a plan to balance the budget through temporary property-tax hikes outraged Council.

Then Nutter's whole administration bogged down for months this year as he battled to get budget-relief legislation passed in Harrisburg. The successful fight exhausted his administration.

Unfortunately for Nutter, the battles aren't over yet. But many question if Nutter has the political clout now to get the kind of union-contract savings he needs.

Nutter, who gave one-year contracts to all four unions last year, has a budget that relies on giving no raises to the city's 22,000 city workers and getting $125 million in additional savings from the contracts over five years. The contracts expired June 30 and no new deals have been reached.

"He had the political capital last summer to get any deal he wanted to with the municipal unions, and he could have taken a strike," said political consultant Larry Ceisler, who said that Nutter was not in the same situation today.

Nutter's involvement in the SEPTA negotiations hasn't helped his image as a skilled contract negotiator, either. TWU President Willie Brown publicly blamed Nutter for the walkout, calling it "Nutter's strike," a characterization Nutter questioned.

Ultimately, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and Gov. Rendell resolved the conflict.

Nutter said that he remains committed to resolving the city contracts and saving money, but wouldn't talk about the possiblity of a strike.

"We will do everything we need to," he said.

Unfocused priorities

Compared with previous mayors at this point in their terms, the central policy priorities of Nutter's administration remain unfocused.

When John Street was mayor, neighborhood programs like the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative were well on their way by this point in his term. After two years, Rendell had successfully negotiated union contracts that saved the city money and was poised to start a major investment in Center City.

"I'm surprised by what I see as a lack of a coherent agenda; there's a lot of bouncing around," said author Buzz Bissinger, who chronicled Rendell's first term and has lambasted Nutter in several Inquirer columns. "If you're not locked in and focused on what you want to accomplish, you're sunk."

Nutter said that his administration has worked on many issues over the last year - among them crime reduction, a plan to make Philadelphia more environmentally friendly and efforts to improve public education. Moving forward, he said, job creation would be a top priority.

But to make gains on those issues, Nutter will need strong relationships with other elected officials, including Council, which can play a key role in advancing the mayor's agenda.

The legislative body on which he once served has pushed back on many of Nutter's proposals lately. Members have complained about the administration not providing them with information, and felt slighted when Nutter criticized their city cars and the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan.

Recently, Nutter couldn't get anyone on Council to even introduce a pension-reform resolution.

"I think that having come from the institution there was an expectation that this would be smoother," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who said that this had been a tough two years, due to budget cuts and the tense working relationship with the administration.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell acknowledged that Nutter has had a bumpy few months, but said that this situation could blow over.

"If he gets through the union stuff and comes up with a budget that doesn't cut everything and fire people, he will be OK," said Blackwell. "If he talks about laying people off, that's a problem."

Striving for efficiency

In addition to Nutter's frayed ties with some top elected officials, several insiders complained to the Daily News about a fractured city administration.

It's a common criticism that Nutter lacks a strong deputy to help delegate tasks, define priorities, resolve turf battles and keep his intelligent and energetic aides moving in the same direction.

The recent revelation that the city's efforts to get stimulus dollars have been hampered by lack of leadership and poor coordination is evidence of the coordination problems.

"I think he probably has to be a little more careful," said Ceisler. "I think he has to learn how to delegate better and how to empower people in his administration to make decisions."

Last week's unexpected departure of Nutter's longtime aide Julia Chapman - viewed by many as a divisive presence in the administration - was taken by some as a step to remedy the internal conflicts. Nutter said that he did not ask Chapman to leave.

Nutter disputed reports of difficulties within his administration, praising chief of staff Clay Armbrister and saying that work is being effectively managed by his aides.

"I think this notion that things get stuck, one, could not be further from the truth," Nutter said. "And two, whether it's the managing director, chief of staff, deputy mayors, commissioners, these are really smart hardworking folks who have the authority to make decisions."

Still, Nutter isn't immune to the criticism, and his staff is working on a plan to regroup. He is expected to roll out a re-tooled set of priorities in early 2010, as part of an effort to define his administration in advance of his 2011 re-election campaign. More personnel changes are expected.

"Obviously, 2009 was everybody's difficult year," said attorney Dick Hayden, a longtime adviser to Nutter. "I am optimistic about 2010, about the ability to change the subject from doom and gloom on the budget and return to a proactive agenda on a couple subjects."

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, said that Nutter needs to make the city's financial problems very clear to the public and make sure that he gets some tangible projects under his belt.

"Mayors are always judged by what they got done physically," said Levy. "For some it's hotels and arts and culture, for others it's housing. . . . There needs to be a real focus on delivering services."

Are times so tough that the mayor's political future is in jeopardy?

No one seems to seriously think Nutter can't win a second term, although rumors abound about Councilman Bill Green taking him on.

Green said that he had no such plans.

"A lot of people have approached me and asked me to consider a run," he acknowledged. "But it's my hope that we can turn this ship around."

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