In the race for Philadelphia’s top job,
Michael Nutter W’79 was dismissed as the
candidate without a constituency.
His journey from last place to landslide victory
had the markings of a political miracle.
Now the public expects more.

As career suicides go, Michael Nutter’s was a uniquely Philadelphian affair.

On June 27, 2006, the four-term City Councilman walked into the City Hall chamber where he had spent the last 15 years. Fresh from spearheading a widely praised ethics-reform bill and a citywide smoking ban, the reform-minded Democrat was higher on the legislative hill than he’d ever been. Even for a man whose hands had never quite touched the levers of the city’s political machine, the view was now one of virtually unlimited job security. Then he spoke a dozen words.

“I love this place,” he said, “but it is time for me to leave.” 

The announcement shocked many of the politicians and reporters in attendance. Resignations have their place in the city’s politics—former Councilman Rick Mariano had just submitted one ahead of a 6  year jail sentence for selling his office to pay off credit-card debt—but they are typically preceded by disgrace. Nutter was so clean he practically squeaked. Forget about corruption; this was a man who didn’t smoke, drank no caffeine, and ate no meat. The only reason he would step down would be to run for another office, since city law prohibits elected officials from seeking other posts.

And as Nutter went on to say, that’s exactly what he had in mind. He was quitting what he viewed as a dream job in order to take a shot at the mayor’s office 10 months down the road.  

A legislator at the top of his game, unsullied and well liked—there are plenty of cities where this move would have made perfect sense. Philadelphia was not one of them. The reasons were all too obvious to the local punditocracy. Nutter was too intellectual. He couldn’t raise money. He didn’t have a natural constituency. He was on the outside of the ultimate insiders’ game. And most damningly of all, the opinion-makers asserted in so many words, he might be black, but he wasn’t black enough.

Nutter’s announcement made him the first official candidate for mayor, but the smart money stayed put behind four other men. “Only in Philadelphia,” Nutter later quipped, “can you be the first person in the race and already be in fifth place.”

A week is a long time in politics, the saying goes, but for Nutter the next half a year changed nothing. Three months before the Democratic primary, he was polling a scant 8 percent, the only one of five candidates in single digits. One month later his pole position was no different. Finally, in April, he bested all his previous marks—and vaulted into … fourth place.

There were 28 days left until the primary. The only political analysts interested in Michael Nutter’s campaign were the ones who specialize in autopsies. This is the story of the man who defied all those sages. It is the story of someone who came from so far behind by tapping into such deep hopes that by the time he reached the general election after walloping the primary, the groundswell beneath him produced the city’s largest margin of victory in more than 75 years. It’s the story of the mayor Philadelphia never thought it would get.

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The Man Who Would Never Be Mayor By Trey Popp
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