“Tax the rich. Tax the rich. Tax the rich.” It was December 2008, and Nutter was at Kingsessing Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia, trying to get through one of his politically disastrous town-hall budget meetings.
Everywhere Nutter went, crowds were hostile. He would stand up there for two or three hours and patiently say it was critical, absolutely necessary, to cut spending immediately. And then he would get mercilessly booed. It was particularly bad in Kingsessing, a largely black neighborhood on the border of gentrifying University City. The local library was one of 11 Nutter planned to close as part of the cost-cutting; he also intended to shutter the rec center’s popular pool. Nutter couldn’t even get through his introductory remarks before the “Tax the rich” chant hijacked the meeting.
“That’s a wonderful applause line, but it’s not going to get you very much. … Everyone pays taxes in Philadelphia regardless of your status in life,” Nutter told the seething crowd.
The trouble was that Nutter’s tax proposals — which he said were needed to plug the gaping deficit — consistently hit lower-income residents harder than the more well-off: the two-cent-per-ounce soda tax, the flat garbage fee and the temporary 19 percent hike in property taxes. Nutter refused to consider raising the wage tax or business taxes. Doing so, he said, would hurt job creation. It’s a position that a lot of economists agree with, but many African-Americans felt he was protecting the rich at the expense of the poor. City Council stopped the Mayor from closing the libraries and fended off most of his tax proposals. But the political damage from the budget crisis was done.
It didn’t help that throughout, Nutter maintained a stern take-your-medicine demeanor. As Sam Katz puts it, “When Mommy says you can’t watch TV, there’s got to be a little soothing in there, or you feel really put upon by Mommy.” That sounds petty, but Nutter does seem to blow opportunities to connect with black voters by failing to find the right tone for the circumstance. He’ll talk about dismal graduation rates, for instance, and lament that they make the city less competitive in the global economy, not that lives are left unfulfilled. He’ll spin prison reforms that have reduced the number of inmates as successful, not because they’re keeping young offenders out of gladiator school, but because they’ve saved the city money.
This is the cold and “starch” Nutter that Sample was talking about before he met the Mayor at the party. This is the Nutter who shows up at press conferences time and again talking austerity, and saying he doesn’t get to print money like the feds, and it’s too bad but this is how it has to be — all of it without the leavening touch of empathy that comes across as genuine.