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The Last Hurrah

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Mayor Michael Nutter.jpgTuesday's election is probably the last time we will see Michael Nutter's name on a ballot for public office.

The mayor will be 58 when his second term ends.  The City Charter limits him to two consecutive terms.  I don't see any office he can run for next.

When he was first elected, I thought Nutter could someday run for governor or U.S. Senator, using southeast Pennsylvania as his base.  That's no longer in the cards.

Politically. Nutter's fatal mistake in his first term was to raise taxes.  He increased the sales tax and the real estate tax.  He ended the small declines in the wage tax and business taxes begun under Ed Rendell.  He tried to tax sugared drinks and trash, but was blocked by City Council.

At the same time, while city government's budget froze in its tracks (and effectively declined when you take inflation in account) the mayor made no major moves to change the fundamental structure and role of government.

In the parlance of political ad makers, Nutter is a "tax and spend big city Democrat" and that is poison in the hinterlands. It doesn't sell in the Philly suburbs either and that should be a natural base for Nutter.

On the surface, Nutter resembles Rendell: both are pro-economic development, trend towards liberal on social issues. They are both smart guys who present well.

But, it pays to keep in mind that Rendell got his creds with suburban voters by taking on the unions in his first term, working to create a whole new job sector with tourism, and he instituted the plan to begin the slow descent of wage and businesses taxes.

Even as governor, his popularity in town remained intact. When he ran for re-election, he got 89 percent of the vote in Philadelphia. Lynn Swann, his Republican opponent -- and a black sport hero -- tanked, even among black voters.

On Tuesday, Nutter got 75 percent of the vote against Karen Brown and Wali Rahman, who were, respectively, the Republican and the whackadoodle candidates for mayor. Politically, they were non-entities, but Brown's showing in some areas of town (South Philly and the Far Northeast, where she got into the 40s) indicates a softness in the mayor's support within the heart of his base. Click here for a ward by ward breakdown of Tuesday's vote.

Of course, the mayor has four years to dig himself out of that tax-and-spend hole, but I doubt that will happen.

On the night of his re-election, he mentioned three items on his agenda for the second term: illegal guns, black-on-black crime and education.

It's one of Nutter's quirks that he tends to talk a lot about acting on issues over which he has little control, while saying next to nothing about issues where he has a lot of control.

I can't believe I just wrote that sentence. Here is what I mean:

As mayor, Nutter cannot do much about illegal guns. The state has pre-empted local governments from acting on that issue. We can all decry black-on-black crime, but I don't see a magic mayoral solution to it. Under the existing structure of the school district, the mayor does have influence in the school district, but not the final say. That belongs to the School Reform Commission, which is a creature of the state.

On the other hand, in the absence of any visible or coherent opposition, the mayor said little in the campaign about: negotiating new contracts with the city's non-uniformed unions; dealing with the huge pension problems of city government, or ways to keep government agencies functioning at a level where they can deliver services.

Unless something is done to confront these issues, he is going to have to hope for an economic revival that gooses local tax revenues or he is going to have raises taxes again and continue to cut city services to raise the money he will need to pay for city employee raises, pensions and health benefits.

The key word in the previous sentence is confront. The book against the mayor is that he is all about process and press releases, and he hasn't the stomach to confront the unions and other vested interests.

There are people who are optimistic that the mayor -- precisely because cannot run for another term -- will attack these issues over the next four years. I don't see that happening, alas.

What we have seen is what we've got with Michael Nutter. And we just signed on for four more years of it.

-- Tom Ferrick

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