Nutter then paused, and looked around the room. The crowd was gazing at him respectfully, spirits deflated, the gravity of the city’s crisis felt. But then he pivoted. “The thing is,” he said, “for making these sacrifices, we get something in return.”
All over the room, people leaned forward in their seats. “You know it from your own lives,” Nutter said. “When you go through something difficult with someone, you share a special bond with that person. And it lasts forever, and no matter what else happens, no matter how many years pass, you don’t even have to mention it. It’s just … there.
“We can have that,” Nutter told the crowd, “collectively, as Philadelphians. We can be a stronger city. So that when times do get better, as they will, we will still share this bond we forged when times were bad.”
The crowd stared back at Nutter in solemn silence, like people who had just seen something inexpressibly beautiful flicker before their eyes. He had connected politics to the most intimate parts of their lives — the bonds they’ve forged over deathbeds and bank debts. But in watching him deliver another half-dozen or so speeches, I never again saw Nutter make this kind of connection with his audience. I never again heard him pivot so powerfully from the idea of “shared sacrifice” to what we gain in return. Perhaps the smartest guy in the room is emotionally tone-deaf, and never realized the effect he had at Dixon House. Or maybe he just lets the politics come between him and the mayor he could be.
In fact, even as he should have been basking in the reaffirmation of his reformist credentials, Nutter undercut himself again, on casinos. His position on gaming parlors was once fairly consistent: He didn’t like them. But he also didn’t see any viable way to keep them out of Philadelphia. So Nutter talked, during the 2007 campaign, about relocating the gambling halls to nonresidential neighborhoods. This was the pragmatic politician in Nutter. But the reformer in him, or the political opportunist, told activist group Casino-Free Philadelphia exactly what it wanted to hear. This Nutter answered “Yes” to the following on a candidates’ questionnaire: As Mayor, I will attempt to keep casinos from being built within Philadelphia.
This clearly contradicted his previous statements. But this particular flip-flop lent credibility to the idea that Michael Nutter was our wild-eyed change agent. Progressives around the city rejoiced. His administration successfully diverted the planned Foxwoods casino from South Philly to Market Street. As for the SugarHouse casino planned for Fishtown, according to court filings, the Nutter administration stalled the permitting process.