Do-Gooders

Like most folks in Philadelphia who were paying any attention at all to the upcoming mayoral primary last spring, I didn’t think that Michael Nutter W’79 had a prayer of winning the Democratic nomination—tantamount, it was generally agreed, to being elected in November. His campaign, when visible at all, seemed preoccupied with attacking an incumbent who wasn’t even running for reelection, and Nutter himself came off as a faintly ridiculous, quixotic figure, easily dismissed as too naïve to survive a city-wide race in Philadelphia’s brutal political arena.

Way too easily dismissed, as associate editor Trey Popp reveals in “The Man Who Would Never be Mayor,” this issue’s cover story on Nutter’s spectacular rise and victory. His convincing primary win, capped by a history-making landslide margin in the general election, tossed out whole shelves of conventional political wisdom, from the primacy of race as a determining factor in Philadelphia mayoral elections to the city’s self-destructive embrace of cynicism toward politics in general and its own elected officials in particular.

Nutter refused to be drawn into a debate over whether he was “black enough,” and he won as an avowed reformer, without depending on the support of ethnic or other familiar political blocs. “I considered my base to be people who wanted change,” he told Trey. “People who were tired of politics as usual and business as usual in Philadelphia. That’s a harder base to identity, versus a geographic area or a racial constituency or class constituency or a specific area of the city. But my base was people who wanted change.”

Besides recounting the tale of the election, the article fills in Nutter’s childhood and high-school years, his time at Penn and early political education (at the Impulse Disco on North Broad Street, among other venues) and his career in Philadelphia’s City Council. It also addresses the formidable challenges that will face Mayor Nutter and the team he was in the process of assembling as the Gazette went to press—which included tapping fellow alum Clarence A. Armbrister C’79 to be his chief of staff and naming Penn President Amy Gutmann as a co-chair of his transition team—when he takes office.

A number of observers weigh in on the secret to Nutter’s success, but the candidate himself may have put it best and most simply: “Every now and then, the voters just kind of figure out what they want.”

If Nutter’s victory prompts a warm sense of triumph over politics-as-usual, the Washington experience of Dr. John J. DiIulio Jr. C’80 G’80 will put the chill back in you. A Democrat appointed to be the first head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives—dubbed President George W. Bush’s “faith czar”—DiIulio watched as a bipartisan movement to put grassroots, faith-based organizations on an equal footing for federal dollars with secular groups doing the same work got hijacked by opportunists and extremists in both parties.

Since leaving Washington, DiIulio, the Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, has continued to be an advocate for the faith-based idea and to teach about it in his courses. In his new book, Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, he lays out his case—from what the Founders really meant to say about government and religion in the Constitution to his own abiding belief that “the long-term health of the least well-off people in urban America depends on the so-called faith-based social movement gaining even greater legitimacy and respectability and allies and friends than it already has.”

We include an extensive interview, “Keeping Faith,” and an excerpt from the book, titled, “How To Do Good,” in which the “Catechism-thumping” DiIulio argues that, when it comes to deciding how to strike the right balance among government, institutions, and individuals to best serve the common good, forget the Founders and “think Catholic.”

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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/02/08