Searching for Richardson Dilworth

He was the aristocrat who found his voice as a populist. The cerebral lawyer who fought in two World Wars. The cocktail-shaker dilettante who became the greatest reformer in the history of the city. Here’s why, more than ever, we need a mayor like Dick Dilworth

So the reform movement died. About the only vestige was the Americans for Democratic Action, which was invigorated in the years after Dilworth’s death, thanks to Rizzo and the other white ethnic pols who were still anointing Democratic candidates behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms. They were great targets. The ADA became a sophisticated and modern force for liberalism and insurgent politics. Every election season, it would lend out its director to run the most promising liberal campaigns. Many of these turned out to be in the northwest of the city, where a wave of anti-establishment fervor had gripped bright young black leaders like Dwight Evans and John White Jr. and Marian Tasco, and particularly a dapper young lawyer named John C. Anderson, who had taken on his own party to win a coveted at-large Council seat, and who was now, in 1983, sprinting around the city for 20 hours a day in the passenger seat of an old Toyota, battling to get reelected.
 
And here in this same Toyota, hands gripping the steering wheel, gunning it from fund-raiser to community meeting as part of his first job in politics — struggling to make a good impression on the councilman, who would later become his political rabbi, his saint, his surrogate father — was a 25-year-old Wharton School graduate named Michael Nutter.

 

NUTTER’S FACE: ROUNDISH, bearded, bald on top, baby-smooth skin, sensitive lips. Short man, bright, with a nasal voice — but not like Dilworth’s nasal honk. Nasal like a computer nerd. Not passionate. Dispassionate. Nutter is Dilworthian to the extent that the dominant Machine has always held him at arm’s length, and vice versa, despite the fact that he has been a vital part of its machinery — a ward leader. He is our own Mr. Ethics, and his brand, like Dilworth’s, is Reform. He has been in office a year now, and in that year, he has done some bold things and some not-so-bold things. He has mainly sought consensus. He created a “task force” to examine ethics reform in city government, and struck a compromise with the largest municipal union, holding the line on health-care contributions but giving away $1,100 signing bonuses in a tanking economy. He wrote a lovey-dovey op-ed to Bob Brady, his vanquished opponent in the mayoral primary and a guy who embodies the corpulent Democratic Party. So far, Nutter hasn’t styled himself a hard-ass, which means that with every passing day, he separates himself from the virtues we associate with Richardson Dilworth, who, we’d like to think, would have told Brady and the unions to bite his ballsack. In the office of Committee of Seventy president Zack Stalberg, there’s a framed copy of the Dilworth quote about how he is “an emotional man” and “a fighter.” Says Stalberg, “Genuine reform takes a personality of that size. And somebody who’s willing to not just try to make people happy, try to harness good feelings, but somebody who’s willing to step out and really be a leader. Which means pissing them off. Pissing some people off … This is a guy who could attempt genuine reform, because he didn’t give a fuck.”

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