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Say It Ain't So, Sam

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It's been the worst-kept political secret in Philadelphia and now it is out in public.  As the Inquirer reported this weekend, Sam Katz is considering running for mayor against Michael Nutter in 2011 as a Democrat and at the urging of former Mayor John Street.

Let's take a second to parse that.

Katz, who supported Nutter for mayor in 2007, is considering running against the guy he campaigned for.  Street, who ran and defeated Katz twice for mayor when Katz was a Republican, is now urging his former rival to run against the incumbent.

Now, there's a Say What? moment.

If you are from out of town, there is no way to understand the dynamics behind this without a roadmap and maybe a Who's Who, but let me try.

There is no love lost between Street and Nutter. They have a mutual dislike that dates back more than a decade.

Katz, like a number of people, has grown disillusioned with Nutter and his administration because of its knack for either doing nothing or doing nothing well. He's been busy lining up financial support for a cinematic history of Philadelphia, but apparently not busy enough.

As the old proverb goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Hence, Street reaching out to his former enemy (Katz) to go after his true enemy (Nutter.)

Other than as a John Street revenge fantasy, though, I don't think the idea has legs.

For one thing, Katz hasn't said he will run, he's said he's mulling.  Mulling isn't running.

For another, even if he decided to run, he would not win, especially if he ran in a Democratic primary.

It is hard to unseat incumbents.  You have to make a compelling case as to why they should be denied a second term.  It helps if they are tremendously unpopular with the voters, if they are involved in an ongoing scandal or if they recently lost a war.

Nutter doesn't qualify under those criteria.  The latest public poll data we have available (a Pew poll take in February) showed that 53 percent of Philadelphians approved of the job Nutter was doing, compared to 32 percent who disapproved..

If those numbers were reversed - a 53 percent disapproval rating vs. 32 percent approval, I'd say that would make Nutter vulnerable to a challenge.  But, even assuming some slippage since the beginning of this year, Nutter still has a strong base of support among voters.

In February, there was a strong racial divide within those numbers: 65 percent of white voters approved of the job our black mayor was doing; compared to just 43 percent of black voters. 

You might think that would present an opening for Katz. A white guy, who is popular among the city's professional class, might be positioned to capture a big share of the white vote.  And, since Nutter is not very popular with black voters, Katz may get a share of that vote, as well. Add it up and it could come to 51 percent of the total vote.

I don't see that happening.

Under one scenario -- where Katz gets 75 percent of the white vote and 25 percent of the black vote -- Nutter still wins by a comfortable margin in a Democratic primary.

Also, it is my experience that it one thing for a black voter to say they are unhappy with a black mayor; it is another thing to get them to vote against him on Election Day.  (Ask John Street about this.  He was never terribly popular with black voters in public opinion polls, but always managed to do well among African Americans on Election Days.)

The mayor is also insulated by the new campaign finance limits in effect in the city.  It's easy for him to get contributions in $2,500 batches and have it add up to real money.  But, for challengers - unless they have personal wealth - the days of getting a few big givers to pony up $100,000 or more each is over. (This holds true in Philadelphia only, there is no limit on how much you can give a candidate in a state race.)

It means the mayor will have the money he needs to get his message out.  And what will that message be?

My guess is that it will stress how well he has led the city given the incredible, unprecedented, terrible recession that has buffeted the nation.  How he brought ethics back to government. How he has served as mayor of all the people, in the neighborhoods and downtown, etc., and so forth.

How do you run against that? That he hasn't lived up to expectations? That he muddles instead of leads? Those are the nuanced critiques. But, again, they don't build a compelling case for tossing the guy out of office.

So, my advice to Katz is: Sam do the movie, forget the race.

 

-- Tom Ferrick

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