With 28 days left until the 2007 primary, Philadelphia’s mayoral race was all but sewn up. According to an April 17 opinion poll, a multi-millionaire businessman named Tom Knox enjoyed a nearly two-to-one lead over his closest challenger, U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah GPU’86. That margin was widely interpreted as a measure of the electorate’s fatigue with the political establishment. Knox had spent a year and a half as deputy mayor for management and productivity under Ed Rendell C’65 Hon’00—famously drawing a salary of one dollar a year—but he had never held an elected office.

Knox had pledged to spend up to $15 million of his own money to “buy City Hall back for the people of Philadelphia.”  The final tally was closer to $8 million, but that was enough to give him a virtual monopoly of the airwaves early in the race. He used it to outflank everyone on the issue of reform—stripping the butter right off of Nutter’s bread.

There are two ways to tell the story of what happened next.

The first is all about strategy and tactics. Nutter’s war chest was limited by a campaign-finance law he had helped to push through as a councilman. Yet this worked to his advantage. The new, lower fundraising caps forced Nutter’s opponents to play on a flatter field. There was no stopping Knox from spending as much of his own money as he desired, but establishment favorites like Fattah and U.S. Representative Bob Brady could no longer tap the city’s traditional power brokers as deeply as they could have in the past.

After maintaining his self-discipline during that eternity in last place, Nutter spent just about his whole nest egg in the last few weeks of the campaign, vying to reclaim the reform mantle. In the climax of one TV ad, a giant illustrated hand ripped off the top of City Hall and shook out a dozen animated figures whose dark-suited, screaming bodies bounced when they hit the ground. THROW OUT THE BUMS, said a title card. In another, which got a huge response, Nutter’s daughter Olivia showed off her public middle school—underlining the candidate’s personal stake in improving the Philadelphia educational system.

For Terry Gillen L’85, the campaign’s political director, the outcome was simple. “The national story of this race,” she said after the primary, “is that campaign-finance reform came to Philadelphia and the good guy won.”

But that wasn’t all there was to it. There is a devil that comes out for city-wide races in Philadelphia, and past victories have often hinged on which candidate makes the best deal with it. “For better or worse, these mayoral campaigns do come down to racial politics,” an unaffiliated Democratic consultant told The Philadelphia Inquirer the very day Nutter announced his candidacy. “The white candidates benefit with multiple black candidates in the race, and Michael’s move guarantees that.” 

As one of two white candidates, Knox may have benefited from the presence of three African Americans in the contest. As 28 days left turned into 14, however, Nutter’s TV blitz—and attacks on Knox’s reformist credentials by the other white candidate, Bob Brady—had siphoned off enough of the leader’s support to make it a statistical dead heat. Whatever the case, all the candidates had so far followed a pledge to avoid race-based appeals. That ended during a debate one week before the primary.

For months, Philadelphia’s homicide rate had been arguably the central issue of the election. Nutter’s controversial proposal, detailed in a policy paper heavily footnoted with academic references, was to introduce “stop, question, and frisk” tactics to the police handbook.

A number of Penn faculty advocated this strategy as a way to reduce the level of gun-carrying in public [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2007], but it had generated plenty of heat in the media. Opponents questioned its compatibility with constitutional safeguards, particularly the prohibition on racial profiling. During the May 7 debate, Fattah, who is black, translated those criticisms into ad hominem terms, accusing Nutter of having “to remind himself that he’s an African American.”

“I’m still not exactly sure what that means,” Nutter says now. “You know, Is he black enough? … Of course, you would never hear that about a non-African American, or somebody who is white—Oh, he’s not white enough. What does that mean?”

Jan|Feb 08 Contents
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The Man Who Would Never Be Mayor By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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