Street-Nutter rivalry spawns a sudden sequel

SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer
SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer

The former mayor has taken direct aim at his successor. "Really astounding," Nutter says.

Posted: September 26, 2010

Promising to turn the city and City Hall again into honest places of business, Mayor Nutter three years ago campaigned for office as the antithesis of John F. Street - and Street hasn't forgotten it.

After two-plus years of holding his tongue, the former mayor is pouncing on Nutter as if the two were facing off in a next-day election.

In several media interviews last week, Street attacked Nutter's budgets and handling of the recession, said the mayor had no governing priorities or principles, and insisted Nutter had little support among blacks and was ripe for a primary defeat.

Then he questioned whether Nutter is black enough for Philadelphia's African American community.

He is "not a black mayor. He's just a mayor with dark skin," Street, who is also African American, told Paul Davies, deputy editor of the The Inquirer's editorial page.

Nutter said he would not respond to such an "undignified" statement. But in an interview Friday, he questioned what he called "these very personal, seemingly political" attacks, and their timing as a scandal unfolds at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which Street chairs.

"It is really astounding to me that at a time of great economic distress, the former mayor, seemingly in an obsessive fashion now, would spend so much time focused on racially divisive comments and statements with seemingly no background, no detail, no verification, just talking. Just running his mouth," Nutter said.

Street, elected to two terms, said he had no plans to challenge Nutter in the spring Democratic primary. But he has been openly encouraging others to run, clearly focused on rendering Nutter a one-term mayor - and influencing Nutter's legacy just as Nutter influenced his.

"There's a deep-seated animosity between the two of them that goes both ways," said Phil Goldsmith, who dealt with Nutter when Goldsmith was Street's managing director and Nutter was a city councilman. "I think it is a reenactment of Moby-Dick. They are both trying to kill the whale - but there are only so many times you can kill the whale."

Street has emphasized that he deliberately said little about Nutter and his administration - until now.

That is despite early actions by the Nutter administration that took aim at key elements of Street's legacy. For instance, the administration launched a financial review of Street's blight-fighting Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and disbanded the child-welfare organization, named Safe and Sound, that Street's wife once ran.

"I basically gave him a huge opportunity to win over the people of this city, without any interference from me," Street said Friday. "I don't think he's done that."

The former mayor focused some of his harshest words on Nutter's relationship with the city's African American community, saying there is "huge unrest, disgust, and dismay . . . about the performance of the mayor."

In a poll commissioned in February by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 65 percent of white respondents said they approved of the job Nutter was doing, compared with 43 percent of black respondents.

Street also criticized Nutter's programs on sanitation, recycling, and prisoner reentry, and said Nutter was not "a neighborhood-oriented kind of mayor."

Nutter, in an interview, defended his record, particularly on reentry, and said his administration was focused on running an ethical and transparent government, making the city safer, and providing jobs and educational opportunities.

Nutter has made a point of stating he is mayor of all residents, regardless of race. His primary victory was partly due to support from white voters. He received the largest percentage of white votes ever cast for an African American mayoral candidate in a primary. In the general election he captured more than 90 percent of the black vote. Overall, 83 percent of voters supported him in his race against Republican Al Taubenberger.

Street, by contrast, has been viewed as more racially divisive, garnering 98 percent of the black vote in his 2003 election against Republican Sam Katz. He also famously boasted at an NAACP meeting that "the brothers and sisters are running this city."

That the two are antagonists is well-known, with some observers surmising it's precisely because Nutter and Street are so alike: Both are perceived as believing they are smartest ones in a room; they don't easily share their inner thoughts, even with top aides; and both can be prickly.

But Street's racially based comments surprised some who know both men well. "Being in the shadows for the last two years has left him with a deep void. But why go personal?" asked J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. He viewed Street's actions as "vindictive."

Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who was complimentary toward both his successors, said Nutter had done "a terrific job under the circumstances of the downturn in the economy" and was "plainspoken, direct, and clear on what he was trying to communicate."

Goode also said that it was clear to him that Nutter is African American "in every sense of the word," and that Nutter frequently acknowledged "that he is where he is because of both myself and Mayor Street having paved the way."

Street for months has been meeting privately with Katz, his former rival, to talk about Nutter's vulnerabilities.

But only in recent days has he made his criticisms public, evaluating Nutter's tenure during meetings with the editorial boards of The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and with Philadelphia Weekly.

Those close to Street said he was spurred on by antagonizing comments Nutter has made about Street's ignorance regarding sexual-harassment allegations at PHA. Street chairs the five-member board. It is his only remaining public forum.

Street and other board members insist they could not have known Executive Director Carl R. Greene negotiated secret settlements worth $648,000 with female subordinates. They voted Thursday to fire Greene. But Nutter still lays blame with the board, saying it should accept some responsibility for a lack of oversight.

"Given what's happened over the past month or so with the former mayor, his overseeing the complete managerial meltdown of what's going on at PHA," Nutter said Friday, it's no surprise "that he has tried to craftily come up with a distraction to keep people from looking at the deficiencies over there."

Nutter, first elected to City Council in 1991, and Street, a former councilman first elected in 1979, were at one time allies. That bond had disintegrated by Street's first mayoral term, beginning in 2000, with Nutter frequently assuming the role of his administration's chief Council critic.

Nutter went on to use the failings of Street's administration as a centerpiece of his 2007 primary campaign.

Lagging behind his four rivals until the last few months, Nutter began surging in polls after launching a television ad campaign built in part on tearing apart Street's City Hall, besmirched by a federal "pay-to-play" corruption investigation. There were more than two dozen convictions in the end; just one involved a city employee. Nutter also stressed his fight against Street for tax cuts and new ethics laws.

Street said little publicly at the time. But in the week before the primary, he quietly made fund-raising calls for a group that aired a TV ad attacking Nutter for his "stop and frisk" crime-prevention proposal.

The ad showed 1960s clips of civil rights marchers and police with batons, then mentioned Nutter's proposal and asked, "Haven't we had enough of politicians like Nutter, who step on our rights in the name of security?"

Street alluded again to the stop-and-frisk policy during the interview Friday.

Under the program, Street said, "you don't have to be a bright light to figure out that there will be a huge number of African Americans stopped."


Street takes the gloves off. Paul Davies, Currents, C1.

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or

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