Mayor Nutter gearing up for a second chance

Posted: November 04, 2010

MAYOR NUTTER is still standing.

After three years of making painful budget cuts, losing political battles with City Council and managing growing voter unrest, Nutter is coming to the end of his first term. And he says he's ready to run for re-election.

"I love this job," Nutter said in a recent interview. "I very much enjoy being mayor and the decisions that go with it. The great thing about this job is that decisions that I make, you could literally see the impact tomorrow."

Nutter is heavily favored to win, even if he faces a spring primary opponent, but the coming months will undoubtedly serve as a referendum on a mayor who sailed into office amid massive expectations, but whom some residents now view as a letdown.

"I think he suffered from a very high set of expectations. We didn't elect the messiah, we just elected another mayor," said Phil Goldsmith, who served as managing director under former Mayor John Street.

A former city councilman, Nutter emerged victorious in 2007 after a grueling seven-way Democratic primary and a cakewalk general election. His campaign strategy was to run against the unpopular outgoing Street, promising "a new day," with government reform, fiscal responsibility and safer streets.

Today, Nutter, 53, says he has delivered on those promises, although he acknowledges that his goals were tempered by the economic recession that clobbered the city's finances in late 2008.

"Unfortunately, we spent the better part of 18 months on how to rebalance budgets," Nutter said. "We're not perfect. We certainly made mistakes. . . . All of that, again, is in the context of facing a financial situation that has never faced the city before."

Still, some insiders think Nutter's clout has declined, hit not just by the city's financial woes, but by political blunders and muddled communication with the public.

"His re-election really now kicks off," said political analyst Larry Ceisler. "How has he done? I think he has had his ups and downs. It's very inconsistent."

Several people have publicly toyed with the possibility of opposing Nutter in the Democratic primary next year, most notably former Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz, as well as 2007 Democratic candidate Tom Knox.

If anyone gets in, Nutter said that he is prepared for a race.

"It's a free country," Nutter said. "People have to make their own decisions. I think we have a record."

Money problems

Nutter's time as mayor took an abrupt left-turn just nine months after he took office when the national economy went into free fall, crushing the city's finances and putting many of the administration's plans on hold.

"We all signed up for the fight; we all knew we were going to change some things," said Nutter's former spokesman Doug Oliver, now director of corporate communications for the Philadelphia Gas Works. "You did not expect you were going to do it at the same time you had to manage a financial crisis."

Nutter quickly announced a series of unpopular cuts, including a proposal to close 11 libraries that drew swift community outrage and was ultimately abandoned. And during the past two budget cycles, he has bumped heads with Council over how to raise money, failing to get his proposals through.

More recently, a decision to implement rolling closures at firehouses to cut the department's overtime budget has been lamented by residents, although the administration insists the city has always had some closures to deal with training.

Meanwhile, some question why Nutter has yet to tackle a key financial challenge facing the city: contracts for the city's four municipal unions.

Contracts have been reached for police and firefighters through binding arbitration, although the city is appealing the firefighters' award. But the unions for nonuniformed workers have been without contracts since July 1, 2009.

Many critics think that during his first year in office, Nutter should have pushed for long-term contracts that dealt with the realities of the city's ballooning health and pension costs.

"I think that probably the most significant criticism I have, that they didn't take the opportunity in his first year in office and deal with some of these financial issues," said Goldsmith.

But Nutter says the city has actually saved money by not paying out raises to nonuniformed workers in more than a year.

Over the past two years, Nutter's financial moves drew complaints from a public that was expecting new investments from him.

Supporters believe that Nutter has not gotten credit for managing the budget without wholesale layoffs and service cuts.

"A lot of the grand ideas, the reform notions that helped propel Michael into that job, the deck got reshuffled," said Carl Singley, a lawyer and a former ally of Mayor Street. "I think one of the shortcomings . . . what he has achieved is not generally known, what the accomplishments are is not generally known."

Nutter admits that his administration has not always had the best communication with the public. He recently hired a new communications director - Desiree Peterkin Bell - from Mayor Cory Booker's administration in Newark, N.J. And he now has a Twitter account.

"Maybe I can be clearer and more direct in my language," Nutter said. "There are a number of positive things that have happened, and we have to do a better job communicating them."

Keeping promises

One of Nutter's 2007 campaign ads featured seven things that he would do if elected, among them to fight political corruption and hire a new police commissioner. Supporters say he has delivered on those promises.

"He said, 'I'll reduce crime and I'll restore integrity to this city.' He has done exactly that," said Oliver.

Before taking office, Nutter recruited former Washington, D.C., Police Chief Charles Ramsey to come to Philadelphia as police commissioner. Ramsey has overseen a drop in violent crime, although homicides are up slightly this year.

"The issue where he's done well is on crime. Commissioner Ramsey is a godsend," said Ceisler.

Nutter is also credited with creating a more ethical and transparent City Hall, appointing a chief integrity officer and schooling city workers on appropriate behavior.

"Generally speaking, it's perceived as a more ethical environment than I can ever remember," said Committee of Seventy president Zack Stalberg. "Unfortunately in a city with the kinds of problems Philadelphia has, that doesn't get that much credit."

Education is another top priority, and earlier this year, Nutter and schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman touted improved test scores at city schools. Recently, Nutter has held a series of news conferences about job creation - a key concern in a city with a 11.2 percent unemployment rate.

But major challenges remain in a city that has grappled with high rates of unemployment and poverty for decades. Still, Nutter says he's optimistic that the worst of the city's economic problems are now over.

"I have felt since the summer, we had finally reached economic stability," he said. "It was time for us to turn the page."

Political skills lacking?

Serving as mayor requires policy know-how and political ingenuity. Over the past three years, there have been questions about Nutter's stomach for some of the retail politics required of a mayor. Nutter has shown little ability to wrangle votes in Council. An effort to remove the board members at the Board of Revision of Taxes failed, and he doesn't control the Democratic machinery of the city that gets people elected.

"In the mayor's defense, I think he is reluctant in some instances to wade in when he can't control the outcome," said Singley. But, he added, "The mayor's job is fray; that's what people expect, for you to be mixing it up."

An oft-repeated criticism of Nutter's administration is that he lacks a close political adviser to help manage relationships with elected officials, set priorities for his talented and aggressive deputies and oversee communications with the public.

"He would have definitely benefited from having a true political person around him," said the Committee of Seventy's Stalberg. "They're hard to find. But there are some people that instinctively know it very, very well and can be great lieutenants."

Battles with City Council have been a constant for Nutter over the past two years. Nutter insists that he has strong allies upstairs in Council and that they bump heads often simply because of a lack of money or different priorities. For example, Nutter has angered them by trying to end the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan, in which six members are enrolled.

But others think the money problems exposed the weakness in those relationships. Mayoral aides agreed that they underestimated how fragile Nutter's ties were with the Council members that he served alongside for 15 years. Council has rejected key funding proposals in Nutter's last two budgets. In recent months, members have repeatedly overridden Nutter's vetoes.

"Unfortunately, it's tough to be supportive of this administration because they're rarely supportive of our issues," said Councilman Frank Rizzo. "This is politics, give and take. I just don't have that good feeling about my relationship with this mayor and this administration."

To questions about his political advisers, Nutter replies that he is happy with his team.

"From a political-strategy standpoint, our folks are very smart and can provide me with good advice," Nutter said. "And I have a few thoughts myself from time to time. I'm a pretty political person. This is what I do for a living."

Gearing up for re-election

With the general election over, Nutter will soon kick off his re-election bid and start talking about his vision for Philly's future.

Adviser Richard Hayden said: "I think that the three key themes remain the same: public safety, which he ran on in 2007; his commitment to education and higher education; and the third is jobs and economic opportunity. I think people will see he had a strong close to 2010."

Nutter's campaign apparatus has been quietly coming together. He has hired a former staffer for state Sen. Anthony Williams' gubernatorial campaign to do community outreach. And Nutter has been laying groundwork for his effort, raising money and meeting with the black clergy, other elected officials and union leaders.

Even if he faces a primary opponent, Nutter's re-election is hardly in doubt.

"I expect him to win," Goldsmith said. "He's done lots of things that will make good fodder in TV commercials. He's created a good tone."

And Hayden stressed that Nutter's support has largely remained intact.

"The sense that I get and we see in our data is that people understand that it's a difficult set of circumstances and they support him. I don't see any real erosion," Hayden said.

In fact, perhaps Nutter's single biggest political problem isn't necessarily running against him, but is sitting in his old chair on the Council floor. Councilman Bill Green has been a steady thorn in Nutter's side since he became mayor, opposing library closures, questioning budgets and now proposing business-tax reforms.

As many point out, Green is simply playing the same Council critic role that Nutter did with Mayor Street. But that doesn't mean he's not getting under Nutter's skin, especially when speculation continues that Green plans to take on Nutter next year, which Green continues to deny.

"There are people encouraging me to do that. They live all over the city," Green said.

If Green does not run next year, he will likely start jockeying soon for the 2015 election. Will Green's maneuvers and the city's still-limited finances combine to make Nutter a lame duck sooner than later?

Nutter also will now have to reckon with a Republican governor and a stronger GOP grip on Washington, and that could make it harder to advance the city's priorities.

"In most cases the mayor gets very little in the second term," Stalberg said. "He may be able to survive this, but generally speaking, the mayor gets year five, maybe year six."

But Nutter says he still has a lot of work to do.

"We have guided, managed, pushed and been enthusiastic in our cheerleading about steering the city through the worst economic crisis in 70-plus years," Nutter said. "We've positioned ourselves strategically for economic recovery. This is about the future."

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