If the new mayor does have any miracles up his sleeve, he can’t afford to waste them on a fancy commute. On January 7 he inherits a far tougher situation than most voters appreciate. Electoral victory has interrupted his plunge toward career suicide, but only with the thinnest of nets. Add the buckling weight of high expectations, and Nutter finds himself in a precarious position.

On the surface, Philadelphia is the picture of good health. The recent completion of the 58-story Comcast Center epitomizes Center City’s continuing growth. On the other side of the Schuylkill, construction crews have become virtually ubiquitous. Restaurant renaissance remains a common phrase on downtown lips. The Street administration’s focus on peripheral neighborhoods has made many of them nicer places to be.

Yet these improvements camouflage deep problems. Homicide has reached epidemic proportions in the last several years. Right before Nutter’s general-election victory, three city cops were shot in the space of four days. The public-school system, which fell into a nine-figure deficit in 2006, is failing too many of its students, and its bond rating is a notch above junk. The city’s tiny projected budget surplus for 2009 could easily be wiped out by “three snowstorms and a couple of bad events,” Nutter recently told Philadelphia magazine. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer residents to shoulder the financial burden; the city has lost more than 100,000 taxpayers since 1990.

The city’s core financial challenges didn’t get much attention during the election. That’s going to make Nutter’s job harder. In addition to his crime plan, Nutter campaigned on issues like making Philadelphia America’s “greenest city,” offering businesses incentives to hire ex-criminal offenders, reducing the wage and business-privilege taxes, and extending health-insurance coverage. Those big ideas are what all the high expectations have centered around. Money concerns have the potential to trip up each of them.

Philadelphia is not yet in a state of collapse, but paradoxically that may weaken Nutter’s hand as an executive. “When Ed Rendell took office it was essentially bankrupt,” observes Zack Stalberg, director of the good-government group Committee of Seventy. “That turned out to be a great advantage for Rendell, because everyone understood—all the taxpayers and the unions understood—that the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. And it meant that he had a lot of support and there was a lot of flexibility.”

Nutter will soon have to renegotiate the city’s contracts with its municipal unions. If he can’t persuade them that disaster may lie around the corner, they are unlikely to willingly sacrifice as much as Rendell got them to do. The city’s retirement system is underfunded by $3.9 billion. If Nutter can’t turn that around, posterity will have harsh words for his failure. 

David L. Cohen L’81, who played a key role in averting the last financial catastrophe as Rendell’s chief of staff, sees familiar terrain ahead for Nutter. “I think Philadelphia is probably two years away from a financial crisis that is every bit as severe as the one that the city had in 1991,” Cohen said in late November. “That’s good news and it’s bad news. The good news is that the crisis is two years away. The bad news is that the sense of urgency that existed when Ed took office is less obvious or less present today. It was that sense of urgency that gave us the appropriate level of desperation and the public support to create some very difficult labor agreements.”

“None of this is terribly sexy,” Stalberg says, “but it’s facing every organization in America. GM just managed to negotiate away a lot of their health-care and pension costs, you know. In some ways the city is not a heck of a lot different than that.”

Philadelphians have a penchant for putting flamboyant, larger-than-life characters into the mayor’s office to govern almost by the power of id alone. Ed Rendell thought nothing of christening a new city pool with a cannonball splash, or mugging his way into the final cut of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. In the 1960s, Frank Rizzo famously left a black-tie affair with a billy club tucked into his cummerbund to break up a riot.

It’s hard to imagine Nutter fitting either mold. Yet it is possible that by electing a vegetarian intellectual who once named Governing magazine as his favorite read, Philadelphia voters have found just the man to take the city’s unsexy problems seriously.

Be that as it may, Nutter spent his two months as mayor-elect virtually daring them to want more. “I like high expectations,” he said in November. “I think there is virtually nothing you can do with low expectations. And the problem in the city is that expectations have been so low, if not invisible, that it’s hard to get anything done.”

As his first day in office approached, the mayor-elect’s confidence seemed to be turning his personality down a new path. A month before the general election, Terry Gillen recalled the Nutter she first got to know back in the 1980s. She painted a picture of a man given to deadpan humor and small crowds. “We were in an organization at the time and he was the treasurer, and he would get up and give these treasurer reports that were hilarious. I don’t know if he knew anything about the budget of the organization, but he was very funny.”

Asked if Nutter was the kind of person who could work a big room, Gillen paused for a moment. “He can work a medium-sized room,” she replied.

A month later, many people who have watched him closely were noticing a new kind of magnetism. “Over the course of the campaign, I’ve seen him grow,” Cohen said. “I’ve seen his humor, which has always been on display one-on-one and in small groups, come out as he addressed larger groups. He’s approachable. And I think people like him.”   

Mark Alan Hughes traces the change to a particular campaign event at the Convention Center. It was a highly orchestrated scene that didn’t presage any rhetorical fireworks, but Nutter seemed to feed off the crowd in a completely new way. “He delivered as good a political speech as I’ve ever heard—live or even recorded,” Hughes recalls. “The cadence, and the power of the imagery—but also more than that, it was the delivery. There were no notes. It was all new language that I had never heard before, and delivered with this personality and charisma that just electrified the room. I mean, I asked him about it afterwards, because it was as if he’d been transported.”

In a way, that’s exactly what has happened. The story is only partly that of a City Councilman surprising everyone by becoming mayor. It is also about how, in becoming mayor, Nutter has discovered within himself an expansive political persona that wasn’t apparent when he set out.

Of course, he puts it another way entirely.

“Every now and then,” Philadelphia’s new mayor said after his victory, “the voters just kind of figure out what they want. Not what the political pundits want. Not what the political chattering class thinks is the conventional wisdom or anything else.

“And I think what’s happened here is that the public has actually surprised itself.”

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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Two More Penn Faces in City Hall

After winning the mayorship, Michael Nutter named former Penn classmate Clarence A. Armbrister C’79 as his chief of staff.  Armbrister has in the past served as city treasurer and managing director of the Philadelphia School District.  He will leave his post as Temple University’s chief operating officer to take the job in City Hall. 

“I was a little surprised when I got the call,” Armbrister told The Philadelphia Inquirer.  After all, he had supported Chaka Fattah in the primary.  But Armbrister added that he was impressed by Nutter’s approach.  “He told me he was looking for the best people, regardless of anything else, and he made a very convincing case.”

Meanwhile, Nutter tapped Penn President Amy Gutmann to co-chair his transition team as the mayor’s office changes hands in January. “I look forward to doing everything I can to further the mayor-elect’s agenda to control crime, improve education and build our city’s economy, goals that are eminently worthy of every citizen’s support,” she said.

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