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Nutter at Mid-Term II: The Man Who Can't Say 'No'

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 By Michael Schaffer

To read the clips from his City Council days, Michael Nutter was a legislative wizard. According to his own hype upon his 2008 inauguration, he was a municipal savior. And in the refrain of City Hall chatterers today, he's an ineffectual leader who won't say "No" and can't get things done.

Nutter's grim new image doesn't necessarily comport with reality. Then again, neither did his golden persona of yesteryear.

Whatever the hopes projected onto Nutter by reform types, the man who ran for mayor in 2007 was a ward leader, one who was loath to cross goo-goo targets such as the late West Philadelphia power broker Carol Campbell or state Sen. Vincent Fumo.

And the candidate who was supposed to enact sweeping changes had, in fact, never been particularly good at cobbling together legislative coalitions. Though Nutter helped boost public demand for difficult measures like his ethics reform package, the transactional work of getting nine votes was never his strong suit. "They didn't like him then, and they don't like him now," one administration loyalist says of Council.

Even Nutter's own election campaign should have signaled that he was no knight in shining armor. Yes, he vanquished four powerful primary opponents by talking up dramatic change. But in the fall general election, against tomato-can Republican Al Taubenberger, Nutter's campaign amounted to a glorified victory lap.

 

Victory lap

A pol girding for major transformations might have used the time to prepare the public for, say, serious fights with city unions. The result might have knocked Nutter's 83-percent majority down by 10 or 15 points, but it could have established a further mandate for the less popular variety of political change he would have to wrestle with once in office.

Nutter's admirers note that the mayor ran into some unprecedented headwinds after taking office--especially a financial crisis that upended the real estate market, slashed city tax collections, and sapped much of his enthusiasm for a longtime favorite cause, tax cuts.

After a long delay, the mayor got Harrisburg's help with last year's budget. But with fewer goodies to play with, the administration has less to offer in terms of transactional trade-offs with Council, compounding his political difficulties. Nutter is hardly the only pol to go from looking like a budget whiz to a being tarred as a financial dunce over the past couple years. A bad economy has a way of doing that to people.

Nutter Victory Night.jpgAnd yet the city's wonk class -and even the political veterans who never imagined Nutter as superman -- say they're disappointed with a man they viewed as one of them. And the emblematic issue for their disappointment is the decision not to appeal to the courts the city-FOP arbitration agreement announced last month.

"I'm reminded of that quote, 'A crisis is a horrible thing to waste,'" says one veteran of the Rendell administration. "He's frittered away a great opportunity. Look at the FOP contract: They let the opportunity go to make some real structural changes in pension.... We're talking about the worst backdrop since the Great Depression. You couldn't wrest some concessions from these guys?"

In fact, the convoluted question of a labor contract -- with its short-term wage implications and its long-term impact on the city's towering pension obligations -- is emblematic of Nutter's problems among the Smart Set that once loved him.

Budget obsessives know that pensions, in particular, are one major reason the city needs to maintain high taxes and shrink popular services. The administration points out that the contract did involve some improvements to the pension system and some key work-rule changes, such as giving the mayor power to furlough workers that set an important precedent-- a nice, incremental start.

 

Never say no

But critics just wish the mayor had won more --practical politics be damned. That's what the guy in those 2007 campaign spots would have done. It may be a naïve point of view, but it's held by enough people to make a political strategist nervous.

Though Nutter's disaffected supporters may not want to acknowledge it, the mayor has actually never been part of that small population of pols who relish saying "No." Like many pols, his instincts are to accommodate most, if not all.

True, he has the stomach for political battles, like the interminable tussles over taxes during the Street years. But those fights, for all the opposition they engendered, never involved imposing tough sacrifices on the general public--or popular groups like police officers. His enemy was one, unpopular mayor whom he despised.

There was little reason to assume that, even with the national economy forcing his hand, that Nutter would develop the ability to say "No" once in office. And so far it hasn't happened.

In a way, the view of Nutter boils down to a vocabulary problem: The trouble with the word "reform" as it gets used in Philadelphia politics is that it means many things to many people: To some, it means tax cuts; to others, clean government; and to others, a willingness to whack municipal sacred cows in the name of budgetary responsibility. Candidate Nutter benefited from and played to this blurriness, allowing people to assume he'd support whatever version of "reform" they did. As much as it helped him during the 2007 campaign, it hurts him now, as people bemoan his lack of support for their particular reformist specifics. All the same, it remains the central theme of his administration, as "neighborhoods" were to his predecessor.

And in a recession that leaves him without money to spend on major initiatives, and without room in the budget for tax cuts, Nutter has focused those reform inclinations on the cumbersome organizational chart of City Hall, appointing a new cadre of deputy mayors to handle priorities, bringing in nationally-recognized professionals to run agencies, implementing a 311 complaint system and attempting to rewire old patronage haunts like the Clerk of Quarter Sessions' office and the Board of Revision of Taxes.

These efforts bring the administration into conflict with the rest of the political system, especially City Council, whose members have long benefited by being able to navigate the existing org chart. And it's also the sort of long, cumbersome and occasionally counterproductive change (311 has had its complaints) that is hard to brag about to the general public, self-styled reformers or not. No wonder critics call the administration a rudderless ship.

If history is any guide, the next two years could be even trickier. Past mayors have done much of their heavy lifting early in their terms. For Nutter, headed into yet another brutal budget cycle, it's quite possible that last year's bruising scrum over proposed library closures won't be the last case where the mayor gets the blame for trying to take away someone's goodies--meaning he'd be taking fire from both those who want more reform and tax cuts as well as those who want more services.

 In a national climate where even well-liked, lavishly funded incumbents like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg face electoral peril, could Mayor Nutter's banged-up halo lead to trouble?

 

 

Tomorrow: A fantasy politics line up for the 2011 mayoral election.

 

 

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