Polman on Philly politics

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Residents of Philadelphia expect 2008 will be a year of new beginnings.

Mayor-elect Michael Nutter W’79 certainly hopes so, too.

Having won the mayoral election last month by an overwhelming 82.5 percent of the vote—the largest margin in a Philly mayoral election since 1931—the four-term councilman will look to continue his reformist vision to solve Philadelphia’s top problems—rising crime rates, high unemployment and a budget that may soon burst at the seams.

Nutter will take office in January with a long list of resolutions in mind. And voters will likely expect him to deliver on his campaign promises.
Nutter’s great strength in the face of numerous city problems, says Philadelphia Inquirer national political columnist and blogger Dick Polman (above), is his ability to communicate effectively and offer solutions.

Polman, who is also the Povich Writer-in-Residence at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, recently sat down with the Current to talk about what made the Mayor-elect so appealing to voters and what residents may expect from a Nutter term.

Q. First of all, why did voters latch onto Nutter?
I think he represents the potential for major change and he’s a new kind of politician for Philadelphia. He’s making large promises but at the very least people feel that he’s different from the typical carbon-copy politicians who become mayor. He was a reformer when he was in the City Council. He pushed through a lot of stuff that was new, that wasn’t necessarily what the status quo wanted. It started with the smoking ban in all the restaurants, which sounds like a little thing, but it became a symbol of doing something different. He was able to do it effectively.
People also like him because they see he’s smart. He has good one-on-one rapport with people, which I think was a surprise during the campaign. It turned out he was very, very good interpersonally with people.

Q. Despite Nutter’s big win, turnout was very low. What do you think about that?
He’s got to be a little bit disappointed about the turnout. More people are going to turn out, I suppose, in a more competitive [race]. There are a lot of people in this town that support him really strongly and feel in sync with his spirit and impulse to do new things, but there’s a heck of a lot of people in town who, because of the cynicism they have, don’t necessarily feel motivated to put themselves out, to bother to go out and vote because they almost expect to be disappointed. If he does deliver, I think turnout will be appreciably higher next time.

Q. What are his goals for Philadelphia?
One would be schools—having higher quality schools. Another would be the city economy and the determination to increase the number of jobs in the city.
The third area, the most urgent, is in regards to crime. What he wants to focus on very intently is trying to make a very real, substantive dent in the homicide rate. That would involve more policing, stop-and-frisk policies, a new police commissioner. ...
If he’s able to reduce that crime rate in a way that’s going to be self-sustaining, it begins to send a larger signal that this mayor is going to make people in Philadelphia feel better about the city and give them more of a sense of hope.

Q. What do you think about the stop-and-frisk program?
I think there’s such a sense of crisis right now in a lot of communities that if the police were to do things like stop-and-frisk and it led to safer streets, I think a lot of people would be willing to make a compromise with that, as long as it’s not abused. Going into the job with his popularity high at the start, I think Nutter has enough of—to use a metaphor—the “wind in his back” to try a lot of new things and see what works. And he’ll have some measure of public support for him.

Q. Can he maintain his reputation as a reformer as mayor?
Obviously the flip side of going in with great promises is you go in with very high expectations. He’s been at legislator for the City Council for the better part of 17 years. He’s never actually run anything in an executive capacity. With the entrenched city beauracracy, he can bring in a lot of new blood, but he’s going to be dealing with a lot of people who have been coming into work every day for years doing the same kind of job and who are not trained beyond their customary practices.
I guess what he has to do, more than anything else, is make sure that the end goals that he has are still in view, so that if he does cut deals, if he does make compromises, he’s doing that as a means to an end. And then the ends that he’s seeking are still consistent with his original spirit.

Q. He won endorsements from many of the local newspapers. As someone who analyzes media and politics, why do you think he’s become a media darling?
First of all, the fact that he communicates very clearly—the media appreciates somebody who does deal with them in a fair way. The media also likes reformers, particularly editorial boards. And I think the press also likes underdogs in general, people who say that they’re going to speak truth to power.
The flip side is, of course, when you raise expectations that way, the media’s going to be on the frontline of critiquing his performance.

Originally published Dec. 6, 2007.

Originally published on December 6, 2007