ON THE 346TH day of his administration, in the second minute of his appearance at the Kingsessing Recreation Center, Mayor Michael Nutter was heckled. And the worst part was, he was heckled by the man responsible for introducing him.
“We understand the economic conditions the city is in,” said community leader Thomas Henry, ginning up an already angry crowd. “But what we do not understand is why we were not included in the conversation!”
The audience, 275 strong, erupted in applause for Henry — and catcalls for the Mayor. Nutter tried to push through the anger, asking those present to listen, but they had come to holler, to let their emotions spill out all over the Mayor’s dark blue suit and light blue tie. Nutter was holding the seventh in a series of eight contentious Town Hall meetings, all called in the wake of his controversial decision to shut down 11 city libraries. The same public vitriol greeted him everywhere he went: At one meeting, a crowd member even handed Nutter an “indictment” for the crime of genocide against the African people, which Nutter meekly accepted. “Thank you,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Thank you very much.”
Passivity had become the Mayor’s only means of controlling a crowd — a shocking finish to a year that started with Nutter serving as the symbolic vessel for all this city’s hopes. On Inauguration Day, thousands of Philadelphians had lined up around City Hall just to shake his hand. Our expectations were overinflated. But the Nutter campaign had furiously worked the air pump, posing him as a bold reformer in a city that desperately needed change. In one commercial, Nutter literally tore the top off City Hall, throwing out the “bums … who have been ripping us off for years.” Our savior. But less than a year into office, he lost his brand.
Pick an issue: Libraries. Union negotiations. Transparency in government. The budget. Casinos. Nutter either flipped positions or acted contrary to his reformer persona on each. By the end of the year, Philadelphia had a mayor it didn’t even know anymore. And the only thing left to do was boo, assess where he went wrong, and wonder if Michael Nutter had it in him to mount a comeback.
FORMER MAYOR FRANK Rizzo undoubtedly knew what message he was sending when he shoved that nightstick in his cummerbund, just as Ed Rendell knew this city would accept a New Yorker, if only that New Yorker would eat our cheesesteaks, Whiz wit’, and dive into a city swimming pool for the cameras, hairy back and all. Even John Street, who seemed to spend his second term hiding under his desk, told us a story about himself. His ever-present BlackBerry signified our technocrat Mayor.
These images created a kind of communal shorthand by which citizens understand their elected leaders. Rizzo was the tough-on-crime mayor. The gregarious Rendell made Philadelphia fun again. Street was undoubtedly the Neighborhoods Mayor — his tech madness a means of attacking the city’s most intractable problems, like abandoned autos, outdoor drug-dealing and dilapidated homes.