Whatever else he is, Philadelphia’s next mayor is going to be a crisis mayor. In addition to the ongoing catastrophes of poverty and an unsound economy, he can expect to face a homicide crisis that is escalating as surely as summer approaches; a budget crisis that threatens to incapacitate the city government; and a potential crisis in confidence as the public grows ever more dissatisfied with its sometimes corrupt, often self-serving leaders.
It’s tempting to look for a candidate who promises to make one key change and set everything right. “The city can’t improve if it’s not safe” would make a good campaign catchphrase, as would “The city won’t be safe until we clean up the government.” But that’s not how governance works. If the last four years of an embattled and, frankly, overwhelmed Street administration have taught us anything, it’s that running Philadelphia is about jumping from one challenge to the next. Big visions are crafted out of many individual improvements.
If this task is managed deftly, Philadelphia might yet fulfill the promise, so often made to its citizens, of becoming that elusive Next Great City. But we’ll need the right leader: a leader who can assess challenges honestly and weigh solutions thoughtfully, one who can ruffle powerful feathers, win public arguments and make the right decision most of the time. In short, we’ll need Michael Nutter.
City Paper does not tender this endorsement lightly. Over the past several weeks, we’ve looked carefully at the policy proposals of the Democratic hopefuls (see the roundup of our Bottom Line feature), and sat all five down for in-depth interviews (listen to them here). They make a strange field, at once uniform and diverse — uniform in that, with a few important exceptions, the gist of their policy proposals is similar; diverse because their emphases, and the rationales they offer for their campaigns, are not. Regardless of the criterion, though, Nutter has emerged as the class of the field: He’s the guy we want calling the shots when the city’s future is on the line.
It should still be said that all five candidates have offered substantive answers on important issues, and (as of press time) kept their attacks generally above the belt. So all five will receive the serious consideration they deserve here. Let’s count them down, in ascending order of their placement in our staff vote.
The imagery Congressman Brady evokes when describing Philadelphia is that of a fast-dying patient. He says we have both a “gaping wound” (our crime problem), and a “long-term illness” (everything else).
Brady believes he’s the right man to treat these maladies because of his knack for bringing people together to get things done. His talking points are littered with the dropped names of friends he wants to call upon to bring more cops and more probation officers to Philly.
We have no particular objection to Brady’s emphasis on crime (though we worry that his manpower-centric approach might fail to grasp the socioeconomic depths of the problem), nor to the Safe Streets-esque policing strategies he proposes.
We do wonder, however, about the man himself. The congressman indicates that his friends in Washington will be happy to allocate funds to Mayor Brady. But there’s no line item in the federal budget for former members of the House, and we suspect current legislators will be more focused on delivering to their own districts than helping out their old pal from Philly.
More importantly, when Brady talks about fixing things, we can’t help but think, well, why haven’t you done that already? The congressman and party chairman has been one of the few most powerful Philadelphians for a decade, during which the city has fallen into a spiral of homicide and suffered under a hapless municipal government, run in part by Brady’s City Committee. Brady frequently cites the big violence conference he organized last year as a model of his work, and it included an impressive roster of names. But it didn’t fix anything.
Brady, quite frankly, has shown little interest over the years in questions of policy. Not enough has been made of the fact that, when asked by the Philadelphia Gay News whether he supported abstinence-only education, the candidate answered, “I support all education on any level.” Brady has voted on abstinence-only education in Congress. But he appears not to know what it is.
Given this lack of engagement, it’s fair to wonder how vigorously Brady would tackle the innumerable challenges of being mayor. The party chair is right that Philadelphia is sick. But who was supposed to be caring for it in the first place?
Though he placed fourth in our staff vote, Fattah is the hardest candidate for us to turn down. The West Philly congressman has spent his campaign calling attention to Philadelphia’s most profound failing — poverty — and promising, if elected, to do whatever he can to extinguish it. We admire his willingness to tell audiences of, say, planners, that poverty is his main concern (and his restraint in not equating poverty with race). We want to believe he could wage a historic offensive against the problem. We want to believe in him.
But we don’t.
Fattah casts his candidacy as a moral litmus test. The framing is almost Bush-like: Are you with poverty, or against it? And, like Bush, Fattah seems to think that if he musters the will, good governance will be done. But public policy is about more than will. It’s about execution. And when it comes to execution, Fattah would likely fall short.
The congressman’s proposed source of revenue for his anti-poverty plans, the leasing of the airport, will be much harder to access than he’s let on. (It will require two changes in federal law and the assent of Tinicum Township.) Pressed for a Plan B, he essentially says he would streamline the government to get the best bang for his buck. But when he minimizes Philadelphia’s political problems (he says there are a few bad apples, rather than a culture of nepotism and pay-to-play), and describes the Street administration as generally capable (he would give it between a B and a B+), it’s hard to picture him drastically reforming the city.
There’s also the question of whether Fattah’s approach to poverty alleviation over-emphasizes work-force development at the expense of the tax cuts Philly needs to compete for jobs. Fattah says he wants to replace the business privilege tax with a net profits tax, reducing the burden on small businesses but making the cuts “revenue neutral” by charging certain currently exempted companies. This change, though, might require Harrisburg’s approval; like his airport plan, it’s no guarantee. The choice between tax cuts and services is a hard one, but with Fattah, we’re liable to get neither.
When you consider all of this, it becomes too easy to imagine a Fattah administration where misdeeds are excused — “Who cares about that no-bid contract? We’re fighting poverty here!” — and not much changes.
If Congressman Fattah is elected, City Paper will be rooting for him to deliver on his promises. But he seems too likely to give us more of the same, and that’s not something we think Philadelphia can risk.
Speaking of risks: Knox strikes us as an utter roll of the dice. He could be a great mayor. Or he could be awful.
Before we get into this, a quick note on Knox’s campaign strategy: Knox hit the airwaves early and often with his rags-to-riches story, to both forge a connection with low-income voters and portray himself as a man of awesome talent. If I went from the Abbotsford projects to multimillions, he implies, I must be the guy you want running the government.
Another way to look at Knox’s biography, though, is that he climbed his way up the socioeconomic ladder at a time when the middle class was expanding in this country, and then sat on his millions at a time when more and more wealth was being hoarded at the top of the economic food chain.
Can Knox be blamed for rising inequality? Of course not. But he can’t be credited with fighting it, either. Helping oneself and helping others are two different talents, and Knox, in his life, has displayed only one.
This doesn’t necessarily mean he would be a bad mayor. When Knox came to interview with us in April, he was much more polished and knowledgeable than during his early days on the campaign trail. The candidate, we realized, is a fast learner, and we began imagining the Knox jackpot: A preternatural manager moves into City Hall and begins to immediately impose a new ethic of accountability. Services improve, money is saved, and because Knox owes few favors, problems get addressed pragmatically rather than politically. The essence of Philly politics could change for the better.
But there’s also the chance that the cards fall wrong. Recent revelations suggest that Knox’s outsized ego makes it hard for him to cooperate, that he has selfish instincts and that he’s nowhere near being the outsider he claims to be. We could be stuck with four, even eight years of an ineffectual government that can’t get anything done, and doesn’t try to do any good.
Back in March, Knox and Dwight Evans held a joint press conference to announce they were challenging the validity of Brady’s petitions. Knox emphasized that Brady needed to be kicked off the ballot because he hadn’t followed the law. We approached Knox afterward to ask him whether he thought the law in question was a good law. He paused for about 10 seconds, then said, “I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. If it’s not, somebody should change it.”
Knox has a knack for getting ahead, but hasn’t proven that he thinks, or much cares, about right and wrong. He’s a gamble. We might even be willing to take the bet if there weren’t better candidates in the race.
“Over and over again, I keep hearing, well, he’s the best qualified one, if he could just get elected,” Evans said exasperatedly when he came to sit with us. “If you think I’m the best qualified one, back it up. Support it!”
Evans is right that his low poll numbers have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they augur a last-place finish he doesn’t deserve. We won’t dismiss the state representative simply because others have. We will observe that his poll numbers may be low because he’s a less-than-stellar public speaker, and that this is not as superficial a flaw as it seems. But more on that in a moment.
To listen to Evans talk about governance, really talk, without time limits or big audiences, is to listen to someone who deeply understands his subject. Evans’ record reflects this expertise. He has a history of being on the right side of issues before they were popular, and he enabled a startling transformation on West Oak Lane.
In fact, Evans has been such a successful state legislator, and is so well placed to do more good work in Harrisburg, that many have wondered why he’s running for mayor. Evans’ stock explanation is that mayor is a more prominent job than state representative: You get a “bully pulpit,” from which to argue the city’s cause, he says. In Harrisburg, he’s been unable to draw attention to the need for gun control, but as mayor, he thinks, he could put a hot spotlight on the issue.
The problem with this explanation, and the fatal flaw of Evans’ candidacy, is that the bully pulpit is precisely his weakness. In an executive position, communication matters, and Evans — with his propensity to stumble over words, his long, digressive statements, and his habit of ignoring questions — is not a good communicator. He would struggle both to advocate for the city and to rally the public behind his ideas.
City Paper enthusiastically endorses Evans as a state representative, and should he decide to run for a higher legislative office, we’ll probably endorse him for that, too. But we don’t think he’s the man to be mayor.
The day Nutter stood in the middle of City Council’s chambers to announce his resignation and unofficially launch his campaign, a Street-friendly insider in the back of the room looked at the crowd of reporters huddled around the councilman, turned to a colleague and said, “That’s his constituency.” It was meant as an insult. Nutter is the media’s candidate, he was saying — a candidate of the elite.
It’s true that Nutter has proven appealing to an educated, middle-class demographic from which most journalists draw. But there’s another reason the press likes Nutter: For a politician, he is startlingly straightforward. This is not a trivial point. It signals an understanding on the part of the councilman that, however high the re-election rate for incumbents in Philadelphia, he is an elected official, charged with serving, and answering to, the public.
This ethic of service has been a guiding principle of Nutter’s career. In his 16 years on council, Nutter did well by his district, overseeing an impressive economic revitalization in Manayunk and East Falls. He was also consistently on the correct side of citywide issues, from the police advisory commission to domestic-partner benefits, from tax reduction to debates where the political Powers That Be were aligned against him, such as campaign finance reform and the establishment of an ethics board. Perhaps most impressive, he pushed legislation on these matters past a mayor violently hostile to his initiatives.
As a mayoral candidate, Nutter has run an honorable campaign, resigning his position early on (the only candidate who had to do so) and publicly defending the campaign finance laws he put in place. He’s also issued detailed, thoughtful position papers on a wide range of topics, including a final one outlining how he’d pay for all of his proposals (he’s alone among the candidates in this regard, too).
Most of all, Nutter has treated voters like intelligent creatures. At an education forum in April, the candidates were asked about class size. All those present responded with some version of the statement: “It’s important that we get more money and reduce class sizes.” Nutter said this, too, but added a caveat. In some schools, he said, it won’t be possible to immediately reduce class size, because there aren’t enough rooms to hold more classes (and it takes time to build more schools). He suggested placing multiple teachers in classrooms to reduce the student-teacher ratio.
It was a minor moment, but reflected a major trend. Nutter hasn’t just thought about how to answer questions on the campaign trail; he’s considered what it would be like to actually be mayor and deal with the city’s problems. In accounting honestly for those problems and proposing doable solutions, he seems more likely than his opponents to solve some of them.
Even as he deals in realism, though, Nutter sets high standards for Philadelphia. He sees the crime situation for the “emergency” it is, and has proposed measures that, while unnerving from a civil rights perspective, make clear that the current state of affairs is unacceptable. He has insisted that we’re capable of running our own schools, and called out the state on its insidious involvement with our district — cutting funding in 1991, then taking the system over when it predictably ran out of money. Unlike the other longtime politicians in the race, Nutter sees that there’s something wrong with politics in Philadelphia, and has, indeed, made reform a centerpiece of his career and his campaign. Finally, he derides what he sees as Philadelphia’s defeatist attitude.
“We actually don’t think we deserve better,” he told us. “In much of our decision-making, it’s, well, you know, we could strive for this, but it was easier to get that. We should be more proud of ourselves. … This is already a great town.”
Nutter is not the political virgin his supporters sometimes claim. He has cut his unsavory deals and made his compromises (his relationship with Carol Campbell comes to mind — though it’s worth noting that the two are no longer allies). Our greatest reservation about him, though, probably regards not his purity, but his outlook on the city government’s involvement in poverty.
“Confronting social challenges like poverty requires the resources of the state and federal governments,” he wrote in a statement. “It is simply misguided public policy to use limited local resources to meet the responsibilities of higher governments.”
Though Nutter’s right that state and federal funds are necessary for combating poverty, we’d prefer to not see the possibility of Philadelphia’s involvement dismissed outright. The city can make some difference. And as Nutter observed when we asked him about this, he has proposed education reforms, job training and job growth initiatives that would benefit the city’s impoverished. We’re convinced that his prioritization of tax cuts does not belie an in-egalitarian agenda, as some have suggested. Rather, it’s a hard choice, and we suspect it’s the right one.
In this mayoral race, most of the candidates have made a central commitment upon which they rest their candidacies. Michael Nutter is the exception to this rule — there’s no single point to which he always returns. The best argument for Nutter, actually, is a conglomeration of his opponents’ campaigns: He can deliver on their promises better than they can.
Knox says he’ll be a reformer, but Nutter has actually made reforms.
Brady says he’ll make things happen, but over their careers, with much less influence, Nutter has accomplished more than Brady has proposed.
Evans wants to be a public advocate for the city, but Nutter is, simply, a better spokesman.
And Fattah wants to create opportunity, but Nutter has a more feasible plan for doing so.
If Michael Nutter is elected, City Paper intends to hold him accountable like we would any other public official. But this is not a reluctant endorsement. Throughout his career, Nutter has displayed the integrity to get things right and the intelligence to get things done. With myriad crises looming in Philadelphia’s future, the notion of a Nutter administration fills us with a feeling about city government we haven’t had in a long time: a sense of … what’s the word? Ah, yes. Confidence.