Mayor Nutter’s Legacy Is Riding on the Pope Visit — Right?
Will the papal visit have a lasting impact on Mayor Michael Nutter’s legacy?
Mere hours before His Holiness touches down in Philadelphia, some are still worried that the event will be a bust. And no wonder: SEPTA has more than 200,000 papal passes left, there are nearly 6,000 Airbnb listings available, and Center City hotel rooms have not yet sold out. Much of the city is a ghost town. “Philly’s Preparations for Pope Francis are Like a Dry Run for the Apocalypse,” reads a Gizmodo headline.
As oddly empty as the city may have looked Friday, though, political analysts say the effect of Pope Francis’ trip on Nutter’s image will either be positive or negligible — and they’re probably right.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be a success,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political consultant. “You know why it’s going to be a success? There’s no metric. So it doesn’t matter whether 50,000 people show up or 2.5 million. It’s a success as long as the pope is smiling.”
The Nutter administration has taken a beating in the press for doing a poor job communicating details about the mega-event to businesses and residents, at least initially.
Information about road and bridge closures during the World Meeting of Families first leaked out in dribs and drabs from unofficial sources, making the city look like it had lost control of the situation. There were stories in the media about pregnant women fearing that they wouldn’t be able to travel to nearby hospitals during the papal visit, and businesses fretting that they wouldn’t be able to get employees to work.
Some have even worried that Nutter and the Secret Service might scare people away from the papal visit in the same way that former Mayor Frank Rizzo scared people away from the Bicentennial. Before the 1976 event, Rizzo said routinely things like “a lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence” and “the leftists … intend to come in here in thousands from all over the country to disrupt.” Of course, no one showed up to the event.
But Ceisler predicts that Nutter’s PR strategy for the papal visit will be forgotten by Monday, and a new narrative will take hold.
“This is an exclamation point on his mayoralty,” said Ceisler. “And it’s somewhat appropriate because in many ways this is sort of an outward-facing event, and that is where Nutter has excelled. This is about how Philadelphia looks to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”
Daniel Fee, another political consultant in the city, agreed it would be a “real feather in [Nutter’s] cap” if the papal visit was successful. In fact, he said, under Nutter Philadelphia has already become known as a city where big-time events are held.
“This is the place where national organizations and international leaders come, from the Made in America festival to the Fortune Under 30 to the DNC and now the pope,” he said. “It’s really impressive and wouldn’t have happened if the city didn’t show it could handle it. We’ve had great amenities for years, but never this onslaught of people coming here for big events.”
Neil Oxman was the only political guru I talked to who didn’t believe the papal visit would affect Nutter’s legacy, for better or for worse.
“Five years from now, it will be a footnote in Nutter’s eight years,” he said. “It’s three days.”
Perhaps. But this is an extraordinary event, and coming so near the end of Nutter’s tenure, it could have an outsized impact on how Philadelphians remember his leadership. The brain tends to latch on to beginnings and endings.
Barring any tragic events, the worst case scenario for Nutter is fewer pilgrims coming to the city than expected. If that happens, Philly would still look great on TV. The pope would still say moving things. And my guess is that residents wouldn’t blame Nutter as fiercely for a flop as they blamed Rizzo. Rizzo made people fear a terrorist attack was going to happen at the Bicentennial. Nutter made people fear that it was going to be a pain in the butt to see the pope. One of those things leaves a worse taste in your mouth than the other.
And the best-case scenario for Nutter? Lots of people show up, the city looks better than great on TV, and the pope says moving things.
That would make Philadelphians feel proud of their city, which, in turn, would make them feel good about Nutter — even if they’re at the shore this weekend.