Katz was sorely tempted to try again, but he ultimately passed. Other would-be contenders are still mulling it over (as of press time), including Tom Knox, the white multimillionaire who was runner-up to Nutter in the 2007 primary, and Councilman-at-large Bill Green, the white son of the former mayor and Nutter’s most ardent critic in the government. There is a chance neither will run, and Nutter may not face any serious challengers. But Street is working hard to prevent that. He is convinced the black vote is up for grabs.
Back in 2007, the fact that Nutter was not seen as a prototypical “black mayor” was political gold, not a liability. Nutter was the anti-Street. The departing mayor was surrounded by corrupt actors; Nutter was Mr. Clean. Street dawdled as the murder rate soared; Nutter wanted to let the cops frisk at will. Street was “The brothers and sisters are running the city.” Nutter was the accessible black candidate, just as attractive to whites as to African-Americans, and as popular in the suburbs as he was in the city.
Then along came Barack Obama, and the national press made Nutter part of a national storyline. Nutter and Obama were at the forefront of a new generation of African-American leaders who were more interested in governing than in civil rights — guys like Newark mayor Cory Booker, Alabama Congressman Artur Davis and Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty, all of them just kids during the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. If anything, Nutter was seen as the least race-conscious of them all. After he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Obama in the presidential primary, a New York Times Magazine piece suggested that Philadelphia’s mayor might just be “a genuine post-racial politician.”
In theory, post-racial leadership is really attractive, particularly for well-off white progressives who can congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness while casting a ballot for someone like Nutter, whose policies and interests align neatly with their own. But it turns out there are major political risks for black politicians who are seen as above the racial fray. Fenty lost the mayor’s office after his support among African-Americans evaporated, and Davis, a Congressman turned gubernatorial hopeful, was obliterated in Alabama’s Democratic primary as black advocacy groups supported his white opponent instead.
“I’d be proud to say, ‘Hey, look, I’m the guy who transcended racial politics.’ It’s nice,” says Oliver, Nutter’s former press secretary. “But it cuts two ways. If racial identity continues to polarize communities, well then, now you’re just seen as the guy who wants me to assimilate, you’re the guy who wants to erase all the hard work of our ancestors, you’re the guy who thinks the playing field is level.” You are, in other words, seen just as a mayor with dark skin.