Nutter's star keeps rising, but in Phila. ...

Mayor Nutter with ex-Rendell aide David L. Cohen, who says everything in the city is more appreciated elsewhere. JULIE FLETCHER
Mayor Nutter with ex-Rendell aide David L. Cohen, who says everything in the city is more appreciated elsewhere. JULIE FLETCHER
Posted: June 17, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. — Vice President Biden calls Mayor Nutter "one of my best friends in public life."

Michelle Obama addressed the mayor as "my dear friend" the last time she came to Philadelphia.

Democratic pundit Donna Brazile wants Philadelphians to know that she has Nutter on speed dial.

"Michael Nutter is a breath of fresh air. He likes to bring people together," Brazile said Thursday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting here, where Nutter was inaugurated as the organization's new president Saturday.

"Mayors are leaders, doers," Nutter said in his inaugural speech in his new role. "We get things done, and we are moving America's cities forward. That can be a jarring idea in today's America when some of our national leaders can't seem to agree on anything.''

The Nutter lovefest was temporarily interrupted Thursday when the rising Democrat returned home to negotiate, not very successfully, with a less-admiring City Council, which rejected much of his plea for school funding and tore up his plan to implement property-tax reform in 2012.

It's a familiar pattern for Nutter, where battles at home for initiatives such as a soda tax meet defeat and sometimes derision, while sympathetic souls across the country shower him with plaudits. While he builds his credit with national figures, Council members publicly defy him. And as he is lauded by party heavyweights like Brazile as “a major voice about the challenges of youth in our inner cities," his school district teeters on the brink of fiscal ruin.

When Nutter appeared in Philadelphia with the first lady recently, he was booed.

"Michael Nutter, like everything else in Philadelphia, is more appreciated outside the city than inside the city," said David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive who was Mayor Ed Rendell's chief of staff.

Nutter's glow returned Saturday when he was inducted as president of the Conference of Mayors. It's a high-profile position as a national spokesman on urban issues, a position that Nutter timed perfectly for a presidential election year. President Obama is already leaning on him to win votes in a battleground state.

Nutter has enthusiastically nurtured that profile, doing interviews with Chris Matthews, Diane Sawyer, and Soledad O'Brien, as well as a role in the HBO documentary Weight of the Nation — about the obesity epidemic.

In the last two weeks alone he has been to Washington, Chicago, and Florida, speaking on a variety of national topics.

But with critics back home starting to grumble about his attention to city issues, Nutter will have to show that his newfound prominence outside Philadelphia helps his city as much as it helps his post-mayoral career.

"This whole platform is a significant one for him and for the city, and the fact that it is happening in an election year is doubly significant because he will have a chance to have the ear of the president," said former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.

As president of the mayors group, Nutter will be the voice for urban America, the go-to person when TV commentators need someone to speak about a host of issues, many of them dear to Nutter's heart, including gun violence and childhood obesity. He will also push for more mundane needs, including passage of a $48 billion transportation bill now held up in Congress.

Along the way, Nutter will make crucial contacts that will help propel him to wherever he goes next, said Tony Coelho, a former Democratic congressman who boasts of a "good eye for people who should move up in office."

"I picked up right away that he was a guy who had a big future, that he listened and was a people person," said Coelho, who liked how Nutter went out and shoveled snow during snowstorms rather than just giving updates. "It's a naturalness that you don't find a lot."

Heading the U.S. mayors has three big advantages, Coelho added: national exposure, power among Democrats (even though the conference is nonpartisan), and "it puts him in touch with all kinds of financial players," who can help Nutter raise money should he seek office again.

Rumors swirl constantly that if Obama wins, Nutter might take a high-level position in the president's administration. Nutter promises to serve out his term and focus only on that task for now.

On the national stage, even those who don't share the mayor's politics tend to find him sincere.

Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., who will be second-in-command at the U.S. Conference, is a Republican Mormon who likes Nutter's sense of humor and honest talk. Nutter jokes that he, Smith, and outgoing U.S Conference President Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, who is of Mexican descent, are the "Mod Squad" of mayors.

"I run into a lot of pretentious people in the world, a lot of big egos, a lot of people who are not what they seem, and Michael Nutter is the antithesis of that," Smith said. "No matter what the issue is, I know I am going to get the straight story from Mike Nutter."

Nutter's "straight story" doesn't always play as well at home.

Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University, said Nutter seems to suffer from a problem common to people who develop reputations as being strong on policy: They do a lot more thinking than acting.

"The knock against Nutter, and we know more locally than nationally, is that he's not a tenacious infighter for the things he says are very important," Miller said. "Part of it is personality and part of it is that he's never built up a Nutter mafia, a Nutter gang, people that can do the work for him."

Nutter, however, disputed that his recent efforts to overhaul the city's property-tax system and win more money for schools were failures. Those issues are still being hashed out with Council before a potential vote Thursday.

"This is not about me," Nutter said, but rather about the city's property owners, "many of whom have been subject to a broken system for a long, long period of time."

Nutter's seat at the big kids'table can be useful.

Joseph Riley, mayor of Charleston, S.C., said Nutter was a critical voice during talks at the White House about winning federal stimulus dollars to keep police on the payroll in Philadelphia and other cities.

Nutter is perhaps best known outside his city for the speech he gave last summer criticizing black teens who roamed Center City, attacking people. Nutter said young black men needed to start taking responsibility for their children and stop acting like "sperm donors" and "human ATMs."

The speech went viral on the Internet and was the subject of talk radio throughout the land. Attendees in Orlando last week mentioned it, often in glowing terms.

"That was a landmark speech," said Tom Cochran, executive director of the mayors conference. "I think what he is saying to all of us — red, yellow, black, or white — is that we have to be responsible for ourselves and our children. With a black president and a black attorney general not willing to discuss this stuff, Mayor Nutter has been out there."

The African American community back home was not so unanimously impressed; some said it was aimed at whites, not blacks. Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, an ally of the mayor's, said everyone agrees that people need to take responsibility for their children, but some African Americans thought Nutter failed to acknowledge root problems such as poor educations and lack of jobs.

Even so, Williams said, the speech symbolized what people admire about Nutter.

"It took a great deal of courage to make that speech in front of a black congregation in a church with people he has grown up with," Williams said.

On Thursday at the U.S. mayors' meeting, Nutter led a conversation about black-on-black violence and an effort to end it that treats violence as a disease, one that can be transmitted from one person to another, often committed by adults who witnessed brutal crimes as children.

Gary Slutkin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was on the panel and is the leading voice on seeing violence as a transmittable disease. He praised Nutter's commitment to the issue.

When Slutkin asked for a last-minute meeting with Nutter last fall to talk about violence, the mayor met him at 10 p.m. They spoke for two hours.

"Nutter has contributed enormously," Slutkin said, "and I believe his contribution is just beginning."

Contact Miriam Hill at hillmb@phillynews.com or 215-854-5520. Follow her on Twitter @miriamhill. Read the City Hall politics blog, www.heardinthehall.com.

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