For many Philadelphians, long accustomed to the poison of racial politics, the most inspiring accomplishment of Nutter’s campaign was the way he torpedoed this divisive rhetoric. Fattah’s remark was stunning in its blatancy, but he was just saying aloud what many had articulated less directly. Nutter faced another variant when the Inquirer’s editorial board asked him to respond to what it called a general sense that he was “something of an elitist” and “not a man of the people.” 

In the sound file the newspaper posted online, you can hear the exasperation mount in the candidate’s voice. “I am probably, from an income standpoint, either last or next-to-last in terms of financial resources,” Nutter says. “I don’t know what elitist means, to be honest with you. I mean, I could have come in today with my jeans on—maybe halfway down my behind—and my hat on backwards. Now if that makes you more down—” he cuts himself off. “I mean, this is a bunch of nonsense!”

Whether he was facing Fattah’s blunt stab or the subtler whisperings of the media, Nutter didn’t take the bait. He liked to tell people that he was who he was and he was comfortable with it. That he wasn’t ashamed to speak a “relatively understandable version of the king’s English,” or to have come from a family that valued educational achievement. He hadn’t clothed himself in a stereotypically “authentic” racial identity at St. Joseph’s Prep or at Penn, and he wasn’t going to shift shape for a political race.

“I think when people try to label him, he bristles—and rightly so,” Gillen says. “He doesn’t want to be labeled and he’s not going to let people define him.”

Neither did he accept the conventional wisdom that the only way to win a city-wide office was to put yourself in the pocket of the union vote, the black vote, or any other demographic piece of the pie. “I considered my base to be people who wanted change,” Nutter says. “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.”

Mark Alan Hughes, a senior fellow in Penn’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and a columnist for the Daily News, took a leave of absence from the opinion pages to get a worm’s-eye view of Nutter as a campaign volunteer.

“What I loved watching happen during the course of the primary election campaign is the way Nutter was able to take something that many people in the chattering classes in Philadelphia had characterized as his liability—the fact that he’s well-educated, and well-spoken, and thoughtful, and policy-wonkish, and endlessly fascinated with some of the details of governing and so on,” Hughes says, “and demonstrate that, you know what—Philadelphians like smarts too. That in fact Philadelphians process those very qualities not as liabilities but as assets. And that they’re not alienated by somebody who speaks in complete paragraphs, that they’re not turned off by somebody who does his homework and shows up prepared for a forum, but in fact they respect that.”

Whatever the appeal, it worked. “It was the kind of way you see some Kentucky Derby horses win, coming around the corner pole with this incredible burst of speed that surprises everyone,” says Don Kettl, director of the Fels Institute for Government. What’s more, “He won without a ton of bitterness in the primary, which was surprising given how contentious it was.”

To be in Philadelphia in the days after Nutter’s victory was to feel a palpable sense of optimism about what it meant. Outgoing mayor John Street had been a lame duck ever since a federal investigation of his office uncovered the biggest corruption scandal in Philadelphia in 25 years. (Ultimately Street was not charged, but his city treasurer went to jail. The feds’ broader case was crippled when alleged ringleader Ron White, a Street ally and fundraiser, died before trial.) 

Furthermore, Street had been almost gleeful in his embrace of racial politics. “The brothers and sisters are running the city,” he had crowed early in his tenure, firing up his own base. “Oh, yes. The brothers and sisters are running this city. Running it! Don’t you let nobody fool you, we are in charge of the City of Brotherly Love. We are in charge! We are in charge!” 

Nutter’s supporters were harder to pigeonhole. Looking around the Warwick Hotel during the campaign’s primary victory party, Chris Hannum felt overwhelmed by the diversity of the revelers.

“It was a potpourri of different types of people, and about every aspect of Philadelphia was represented in that room somewhere:  business, the collegiate community, the urban grassroots, labor, you name it,” Hannum said a month later. “He had some support from all the different groups in the city, and it was enough to put him over the top. It was amazing. Being in that room, you just felt like a new era in Philadelphia politics was unfolding right in front of your eyes.”

Nutter’s opponent in the general election, Republican Al Taubenberger, evidently felt the same way. Amid a series of debates that were almost parodic in their civility, a reporter asked Taubenberger what was motivating him in the race. “I’m running to make Michael Nutter a better mayor,” he said.

Of course, local government is rarely a staging ground for ideological warfare to begin with. “Pragmatism is everything,” Kettl says. “No matter whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, if the garbage doesn’t get picked up and the streets don’t get plowed, it doesn’t matter what point of view you come from. People care about results.”

Winning in the fashion that he did, Nutter now faces extremely high expectations to deliver them. “He’s coming in with a tremendous amount of good feeling surrounding him,” says Kettl. That’s better than acrimony, he adds, but it does have a downside. “People expect that he won’t even need a city car to get to work—he’ll just be able to walk on water to get there.”

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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Great Expectations

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote. “And if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

For Harris Sokoloff, those words function as a job description. The adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education has spent a dozen years trying to bring citizen voices into the halls of government, and Philadelphia’s 2006 mayoral election served as the impetus for what may be the most ambitious project he’s worked on yet. Aptly titled “Great Expectations: Citizen Voices on Philadelphia’s Future,” it is a joint effort by the Fels Institute’s Project on Civil Engagement and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board to focus the new mayor’s attention on an agenda created by the public.

“With an open mayoral seat and a political free-for-all looming,” says the Inquirer’s Chris Satullo, who led the project along with Sokoloff, “a lot of people in town were trying to think of ways that there could be a good, clean, civil, issue-oriented race instead of a bad Philly political free-for-all with a lot of playing of the race card.”

Supported by the Lenfest Foundation, which agreed to underwrite the project’s major public events, the University was able to team up with the newspaper to create what Satullo calls a “12-step plan to cure Philadelphia of its addiction to negative politics.”

Starting well before the mayoral primaries last spring, Great Expectations went out into the neighborhoods to conduct citizen forums. During the general election campaign, the candidates attended potluck dinners in various homes throughout the city. A wide range of Penn professors participated in one way or another, and the Inquirer’s editorial page used the project to drive coverage down an issues-oriented path.

The culminating event was a “Citizens Convention” in early December, at which mayor-elect Michael Nutter received the citizens’ agenda and delivered a keynote address. “There were more forums in the most recent election cycle than in any other mayoral race in the city’s history,” he said in praise of the project. “Now the real work begins … There are 1.5 million of you who are the shareholders of this corporation who work hard every day to give us your tax dollars, and you expect a return on your investment just like any other investment you make.”

“One point about civic engagement isn’t just that we’re going to listen to what citizens say,” Sokoloff points out. “Once you hear what they have to say, you have to tell them what you did with it. And then you have to give them an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, we like what you did,’ or ‘No, we’re not sure—can you modify it this way or that way?’”

The project leaders hope that the process will not end when Nutter takes office.

“What we hope to refine and extend,” says Satullo, “is that you’ve got a great research university with a lot of people who know a tremendous amount about urban issues, and we try to use them to inform our reporting.”

The partnership is just as strong in the opposite direction, says Sokoloff. “The Inquirer is crucial because it gives a megaphone to the citizen voice. And it’s a megaphone that politicians tend to listen to.”

“Leadership is strongest,” he adds, “when it has the active voice of the governed behind what it does.”—T.P.

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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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