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Nutter at Mid-Term III: Can Anyone Beat Him in 2011?

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By Michael Schaffer

In Philadelphia mayors get re-elected. That's just the rule. They can burn down a neighborhood. They can get bugged by the FBI. No matter: Incumbents win.

By most estimations, Michael Nutter should fit that pattern. He's raised buckets of money. His poll numbers are showing some slippage, but are holding up.

He's protected from local challengers by the City Charter provision that requires elected officials (say, a Council member) to resign if they want to run for another office.

And, for all the complaints about drift, it's inevitable that the mayor will look somewhat better when his challenger shifts from an abstract concept to a real person. None of whom have, so far, stepped forward.

All the same, people in politics like to talk. .  It's the political equivalent of fantasy football. And when executives all over the country are on the ropes, it's inevitable that they'll be talking about scenarios that see Nutter booted from office four years into his New Day, New Way era. 

If some of the scenarios are pure fantasy--say, all the wishful thinking about Ed Rendell leaving Harrisburg to restore the glory days of his reign in City Hall--others are more plausible.

Here are a few of the scripts currently in search of a cast:

The Establishmentarian Triumph

In this version, some respected veteran of city politics runs, arguing that Nutter's difficulties prove that only an insider can get things done. The remnants of the DemocraticBob Brady Cropped.jpg machine fall in line behind this candidate, who bridges the traditional Democratic primary racial divide via endorsements from a multi-hued array of pols.

-Ideal protagonist: U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, former City Controller Jonathan Saidel

-Contrary Indications: Establishmentarians, by definition, don't rock the boat. Nutter smoked Brady last time. Saidel wants to be lieutenant governor in the worst way.

The Black Backlash

In this scenario, an African-American candidate unites much of the black Democratic electorate, where Nutter has never had the sort of deep bond with voters. In the most recent Pew poll, blacks were evenly divided over the mayor's performance and consistently gave him lower grades that white voters. This leaves the mayor reliant on upscale and downscale whites, neither of which constitutes an especially enthused demographic. They stay home, and he loses.

-Ideal protagonists: State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, State Sen. Vincent Hughes.          

-Contrary Indications: Would-be challengers might fear getting blamed if the challenge induces a white candidate to enter the field, leading to racial cannibalization (see below). Harrisburg types traditionally fare poorly in mayoral races.

Racial Cannibalization

A hearty perennial in Philadelphia, where so many elections break on racial lines: If Nutter were to face two challengers, one black and one white, the white challenger could gain a plurality based on racial math alone.

-Ideal protagonists: Take your pick: One of each!

-Contrary Indications: Nutter's 2007 victory showed he could assemble a multi-hued base.

The Feminine Mystique

Thumbnail image for Blondell Reynolds Brown.jpgPhiladelphia has never had a woman mayor. A female challenger could easily pad her own base--wherever it happened to be--by snatching the votes of liberal women who'd previously supported Nutter. Particularly if there were more than one challenger, a woman aiming for a historic first could also cast herself as a real change, rising above the brawling status quo.

-Ideal protagonist: Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown

-Contrary Indications: She's shown no particular hunger for the job. There's not much of a gender gap in Philadelphia Democratic voting patterns.

A Councilmember With Guts

The resign-to-run law protects Nutter from facing off against the people who've actually battled him the last couple years. But what if someone decided to ignore the "wait your turn" logic of machine politics and challenge the mayor right now? Council antagonists like Bill Green certainly out-messaged the mayor during last year's budget fight. Someone might be able to do that on the campaign trail, too.

-Ideal protagonist: Green

-Contrary Indications: The last two Council members to resign to run--Nutter and John Street--both had logged over a decade in Council, and spent years planning their bids. Without that, a safe Council seat is awfully tough to abandon.

A Reformist Outsider

Here's an argument you don't hear much: Nutter's troubles spring from his being too much Bill Green Cropped.jpgof an insider, and not the reverse. In a volatile time, a well-funded outsider could still run by promising to be the person Michael Nutter claimed to be.

-Ideal protagonist:  A Tom Knox-like figure, only not as strange.

-Contrary Indications: Knox  won't run again and no one else comes to mind.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why these scenarios are fanciful. The Establishmentarian Triumph is undercut by Philadelphia's tradition of establishmentarian timidity. The Racial Cannibalization possibility seems hard to pull off in light of the diverse coalition Nutter assembled in 2007. There are few women on the scene today who've exhibited serious hunger for the job. And so on.

But we are in an era, nationally, when even a guy who has lots of money and no challenger ought to be a little nervous. The electorate is restive. The anger levels are high. And Nutter faces a challenging 2010 with the city budget and Council.



Michael Schaffer is a writer in Philadelphia and the author of One Nation Under Dog.

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