A FEW MONTHS ago, a prominent area businessman received a phone call from a fund-raiser for one of the mayoral candidates. The fund-raiser was looking for someone to host a big-money donor party.
“Why should I support your candidate?” the businessman asked.
“Because frankly, my guy is going to win,” said the fund-raiser. “He’s going to be the next mayor.”
It was, sadly, the archetypal Philadelphia exchange: candid, shameless, devoid of ideas or ideals. The fund-raiser’s response wasn’t “Because my guy is focused on stopping the murder epidemic” or “He’ll grow the tax base.” No, the message was, as it has been since Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented” in 1904, “Place your bet now in order to get maximum return on your investment.”
It used to be that political machines were an effective form of local government. Unelected bosses and ward leaders looked out for their own; by virtue of a web of such special interests, cities ended up being responsive to citizens’ needs. Now, however, as the businessman’s exchange with the fund-raiser illustrates, the insider game rarely rises above the merely transactional — for the ultimate benefit of a precious few. Need proof? Look no further than our Delaware waterfront, the development of which was used as a ruse for a crony of Mayor Street’s to solicit campaign contributions from businessmen who were competing for the city’s nod to be the developer of record for the prime real estate. Lo and behold, after the 2003 election, the Mayor pulled the plug on waterfront plans (which left the area ripe for our oncoming casino invasion). Our transactional culture had hijacked and thwarted an important public policy issue.
We believe all of the progress Philadelphia has made in recent years is threatened by the preservation of the local oligarchy that dominates our politics. “Reform” is not just one of many issues; in fact, our most pressing problems today exist precisely because of our go-along-to-get-along culture. The murder rate? We have an incompetent police commissioner who rose through the ranks as a product of the old boys’ network. (The previous commissioner, John Timoney — who did confront the status quo and, not coincidentally, made our streets safer — recently told the New Yorker magazine that it was, in part, the impediments to change presented by the police union leadership here that eventually drove him from town.) Education? We have a schools CEO also leaving town — not due to the daunting challenge of actually educating kids, but because of the wall of opposition he has faced from political hacks and bureaucrats. The budget? The city’s rising pension and health-benefits costs are projected to claim one dollar of every four dollars spent by the city by 2012, and yet no one is taking on municipal workers unions that allow workers to roll over unused sick days year after year. (One city employee we know has more than 90.)
Well, there is one candidate in this race who has, over the years, shown a willingness to take on the entrenched interests and do the people’s business. His name is Michael Nutter, and he’s been on the right side of virtually every public issue the city has faced over the past decade and a half. The Police Advisory Commission, domestic partner benefits legislation, ethics in government, wage tax reduction, the smoking ban — none of it would have happened without former councilman Nutter’s Job-like persistence.
It is Nutter, and Nutter alone among the political class, who has reacted to the murder crisis as though it is, in fact, a crisis. He would declare a limited state of emergency and implement a legal “Stop, Ask and Frisk” policy that has stemmed murderous tides elsewhere, as documented by renowned Penn criminologist Larry Sherman. Nutter’s plan to combat crime is this campaign season’s boldest and riskiest move by far. His commitment to conducting a national search for the next police commissioner — in contrast to others, like Tom Knox, who signals his fealty to the business-as-usual crowd by pledging to promote from within — is just one more sign of Nutter’s instinct to do the right thing.
The other candidates either don’t measure up in terms of vision, or their strengths are not suited to these times. Dwight Evans projects an aura of leadership, and his revitalization of West Oak Lane, where he has empowered citizens groups to take ownership of their community, is a model for how City Hall can spur an active sense of grassroots populism. But Evans, like Bob Brady for that matter, can suffer from bouts of inarticulateness that threaten the marshalling of public will that’s needed to get things done. Moreover, Evans, a 26-year state legislator, has never been known as a reformer.
Chaka Fattah boldly suggests leasing the airport, but his well-intentioned plans for such a windfall — to wage a local war on poverty — smack of big-city, boondoggle liberalism when recent mayoral success stories, from Ed Rendell to Indianapolis’s Stephen Goldsmith, prove that pro-growth strategies expand workforces and fatten tax bases. Fattah is bright and politically savvy, but he is closely aligned with John Street, and we need different leadership and policies.
Brady, with his working-class charm, would have been a great candidate in a bygone Philadelphia; today, his is literally the face of a machine that is at the root of our problems.
And Knox, a self-styled “outsider,” is anything but, as we outline on page 130.
These times call for change and urgency and vision. In his reasonable and understated way, that is what Michael Nutter represents. We interviewed all five candidates, and overwhelmingly chose Nutter in a staff vote, for his vision and specificity. He was, for example, the only candidate who seemed to realize that the title of the brilliant Thomas Friedman book The World Is Flat does indeed apply to the Delaware Valley. He spoke of the need for regional leadership and cooperation, and called for an end to our “suburbs vs. city” loggerheads. He pointed to Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley founded the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus — 272 mayors working together to advance the common good across rural, urban and suburban lines. Nutter proposes a Metropolitan County Caucus here, in an effort to bridge the regional divide.
In a larger sense, that is the true upside of a Nutter mayoralty: He stands a greater chance of bridging the divides that currently hold Philadelphia back. John Street, after a 2003 reelection characterized by stark race-based rhetoric and voting, had an opportunity to connect us, one to the other: black to white, suburbanite to urbanite, young to old. He didn’t even try. Nutter has the potential to make us One Philadelphia. Nowhere was that more on display than in his response when he came to our Center City office and we asked about the murder epidemic:
Two hundred and ninety-six black men were killed in Philadelphia last year. If the Ku Klux Klan came to town and killed 296 black men, the town would be in an uproar, we’d be in total lockdown, the FBI, CIA and three agencies you’ve never heard of would be here, trying to figure this problem out. The fact is, since 72 percent of the victims have a criminal record and 81 percent of the perpetrators have a criminal record, and it’s happening “out there,” people are like, “Why do I have to worry about it?” You need to worry about it. It’s damaging our reputation. It is literally tearing the heart out of this city. In this current environment, no one can say anything, because there’s a black mayor and a black police commissioner and 85 percent of the people killed last year were black. You can’t really say anything because, oh God, you’re criticizing a black mayor. I wouldn’t care if the guy was polka-dotted. Four hundred and six people dead? We need to be saying something. Whether it’s someone with a criminal record or a five-year-old girl in her mother’s car, citizens of this city are being killed, and we have a moral obligation to do something and not get caught up in this race stuff. If you live in one of these neighborhoods, if you’re ducking and dodging bullets every day, what you’re trying to figure out is: “What in the world are the police doing? And where are they?” If you don’t live in one of these neighborhoods, you’re talking about “martial law” and how “Stop, Ask and Frisk” means “People’s rights are going to be abused.” We will not abuse people’s rights. But it is more dangerous for a black man in this city between 18 and 40 than it is to be in Iraq. I want to stop the killing in this city. Somebody got a better idea? I’m all ears. Otherwise, we can just continue to do what we’ve been doing. I don’t think it’s been working.
MICHAEL NUTTER HAS his flaws. He can get wonky, and he has a reputation for micro-managing. But in this one response, as throughout his political career, Nutter exhibits precisely what the next mayor needs to do. He needs to talk about this country’s original birth defect — race — in a way that speaks to all Philadelphians, and he needs to inspire, and he needs to boldly lead in a way that confronts our status-quo culture. We endorse Michael Nutter for mayor, and we simultaneously challenge him to do what Philadelphia needs: place principle over pragmatism, straight talk over obfuscation, the common good over the narrow interest. And if you elect him, we pledge to call him out should he fall short of walking the talk that inspired us to single him out as the best choice to lead this city.
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