Michael Nutter Looks Back
On January 4th, Mayor Michael Nutter’s eight-year run as Philadelphia’s 98th mayor will end. He’ll be replaced by Jim Kenney, an old friend and schoolmate of Nutter’s who in more recent years developed into an on-again, off-again antagonist. Nutter has no shortage of those. The political class has been eagerly awaiting his departure for years. And while he’s more popular with voters than are many mayors, Philadelphia never fell for Nutter the way it did for Ed Rendell. Yet Nutter leaves Philadelphia safer, more populous, better educated—at the collegiate level, anyway—more ethical and more financially stable than he found it. That’s in spite of a Great Recession that knocked his administration to the ground his very first year in office.
More intangibly, Nutter has presided over Philadelphia’s graduation from the ranks of long-struggling post-industrial cities into the club of dynamic, forward-looking cities. Those gains are fragile, and as Kenney often points out, they haven’t registered at all in many deeply impoverished Philadelphia neighborhoods. But as a whole, this city has clear opportunities now that seemed remote at best as recently as a decade ago. Nutter has relished this job. He loves being mayor. That’s never been clearer than in this past year, as he’s gloried in a bounty of good Philadelphia news, from the Pope’s visit to the city’s selection as host to the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Philly’s designation as the nation’s first World Heritage City. On November 6th, Nutter sat for an interview before a large live audience at Philadelphia magazine’s ThinkFest. Not unlike President Obama, Nutter in his final days in office is speaking with the candor of a man who has nothing to lose.
The interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
PM: So, how have these last eight years been? You’re good? You’re relaxed? Rested?
Nutter: [sarcastically] Yeah, it’s just been cool. You know, people have been so cooperative, loving.
PM: That’s the Philadelphia way.
Nutter: Supportive of every initiative we’ve put forward. It’s been the bomb. Somebody can Google “bomb.” Old-school slang.
PM: But you’d do it again if you could.
Nutter: In a much more serious way, this is the best job in America. There’s no question about it. There’s no job like this job. I’m not ready to go, but you know, I read the whole charter a couple times, and I’ve yet to find a loophole anywhere.
It is the office closest to people. It is the office I think people ultimately depend on the most. I like that, and I enjoy that. I like problems; I like taking on challenges. I like getting results, making stuff happen, getting things done, and that’s really what this job is all about.
And you can measure it every day. You don’t really have to take any polls to see how you’re doing. I find out pretty much every day when I step out of the car. You know, Philadelphians are not shy. They’ll let you know what’s on their mind, good or bad. You know, you either picked up the trash or you didn’t. You filled a pothole or you didn’t. You moved the snow or you didn’t.
We’re a large service organization. There are a lot of businesspeople in the room, so I’ll give you this perspective. Philadelphia is a $7.3 billion corporation, with 28,000 employees and 1.5 million shareholders who work hard, pay their taxes, and expect a return on their investment.
We have a wide variety of lines of business. We have a public safety line, we have a recreation line, we have a business development line, and that list goes on. If we perform well, we will grow our market share. If we don’t, our customers will find someone else to pick up their trash, fill a pothole, or deliver water service to their home.
I’m a CEO. I’m running a company. I’m trying to provide a service to give people opportunity. That’s what we should get measured on. It is the best job in America.
PM: Mayors, I’d have to assume, get to know cities in ways that other residents don’t.
Nutter: I have been to a lot of neighborhoods I’d never been to before. I got to see a lot of different people under very different circumstances. I’ve seen people on the happiest days of their lives, and I’ve seen people on the worst days of their lives. And I’ve seen everything in between.
This is a city of passion. It is a city of resilience. It is a city of hope. I’ve seen that expressed in so many, many different ways. And what do people want? Regardless of race or socioeconomic status? To be safe, and to get a great education. And to work. People want to work. They want their neighborhoods to be strong. They want good service. And they want to know that the government respects them and operates with integrity — that untoward things are not happening.
And they want to be proud of their city. So there is something to this idea of Philly pride. Again, New Yorkers may feel that, Clevelanders may feel that, New Orleanians may feel that. But there is something rather special about the pride that people have in this city, and I think they want to have more.
PM: We spoke shortly after the Pope left town, and I just want to read one of the things you told me …
Nutter: Here we go.
PM: You said: “If we just want to be the city in between New York and D.C., if we want to just be the Rocky steps and the Liberty Bell and cheesesteaks, we can do that. We have that market, and we can try to live on it. I think that’s not enough for us. We can do more.” You’re talking about more than the Pope’s visit, I think. What are you getting at?
Nutter: First, speaking of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson were in town today for the upcoming Creed movie, which is the seventh of the Rocky series. I saw it last night; it is absolutely fabulous. The movie itself is great, and the city looks great, with just a wonderful story. They did a fantastic job.
PM: So the Rocky steps are fine?
Nutter: Rocky steps are great, statue’s wonderful. There is now a statue of Joe Frazier, though — a real person.
What I meant by all of that is, I want to raise the level of expectation in this city. Sometimes when I talk about Philadelphia, I’m not just talking about the government. I want us to expect more from each other. I want us to expect more from our city government, and I want us to be a place of choice. I’m not going to allow us to be the place between New York and Washington, D.C.
I flipped out once. I was traveling, and we were in the airport. I don’t remember where I was going or coming from. And the weather was on one of the stations, and they didn’t have our name on the map. It was snowing, or — I don’t know what it was doing. But they had Boston, they had New York and then D.C. and Miami … where are we?
So we contacted the station and said, “Where is Philadelphia on this weather map? We’re a real big city. And I understand our name’s a little bit longer than some others, fine. Put PHL up there, I mean, if you’re struggling for space.”
I think we’ve just been too shy in many instances. We need to shout out to the world all the great stuff going on in this city. That’s what I was talking about.
PM: The city in some ways is a very different place than it was eight years ago. Where do you hope the city is eight years from now? And how fragile are the gains that we’ve seen in these past eight years?
Nutter: Public safety. Public education. Jobs and sustainability. Ethics and integrity. We try to use those four as the fundamental pillars of decision-making in our city government.
On the public safety side, I think the gains are absolutely sustainable. But it takes a daily focus on those issues, and it takes serious leadership at the top. We’ve been fortunate to have Commissioner Ramsey. He’s really, really good. I knew he’d be good, but he has absolutely exceeded anything I could have imagined.
We are down 37 percent in terms of homicides [from 2007], but we had 248 people murdered in Philadelphia last year, and one shooting, one murder, is one too many. It may be completely unrealistic to think we’ll get to zero. I mean, the murder thing has been going on since Cain and Abel. But we should not be accepting of 248.
Education: High-school graduation rates are up 12 percent since I’ve been in office. Four hundred million in new annual recurring [local] funds going to our schools, and big gains in [school] safety. But there’s still only 65 percent of high-school students graduating from high school. Just one out of 10 young people starting in ninth grade actually graduates from a [four-year] university.
Ethics: Coming out of 2003, with the bug and the corruption and people going to jail, indicted and the like, I think on that particular score, Philadelphians did say, “Enough is enough. We do have higher expectations; we do want integrity.” And you know, that gave us a whole lot of runway to demonstrate that it is possible.
PM: That’s true, but in many of the areas outside of your control in government, we continue to see a lot of problems with corruption. It feels like a new investigation is announced almost weekly. So, getting back to the fragility question, how durable is this?
Nutter: Yeah, you know, I worry about those things all the time. First and foremost, I have no doubt that Mayor-elect Kenney will want a corruption-free government, much like I do. That doesn’t mean that people won’t do things. There could be someone doing something right now, for all I know. More than likely, we’ll catch them. They’ll get fired or go to jail. I think he will maintain that focus.
Schools are completely fragile. My worry right now, if we do not orient not only the resources, but accountability measures, and if we don’t actually have a real funding formula for education … You know, the many, many millennials who have come here — we’ve had the largest increase in millennials of any major city in the United States of America. Well, at some point in time, those millennials, they meet, they talk, they go out, they do what they do, and suddenly babies happen.
PM: That’s a very technical description.
Nutter: Fill in the blanks yourself. So people are sitting around and they’re saying, you know, “Susie and Johnny are two years old; where am I sending them to first grade?” And so Susie and Johnny, they’re going to be going to kindergarten in three years, or first grade in four years. If we don’t have viable options in the public school system, whether they’re district or charter, because they’re all public schools, the next question is: “Well, can I afford private school?” And, you know, $18,000 in tuition for first grade, or some crazy, astronomical level like that. Or: “Should I move?” It’s a highly mobile population. People can live anywhere. They want to be in the city. But people will do what they need to do for their children, first and foremost. So that, right now, is my greatest worry: fixing and properly funding the public education system here in this city.
PM: You said the other day that you spent more time on education than on any other single issue.
Nutter: Pretty much.
PM: We’ve got a very well regarded superintendent, and obviously there’s been a lot of new local revenue for the schools. Meanwhile, we all know what’s happened on the state’s side —
Nutter: Or not happened.
PM: Right. But given that mayoral attention, given the quality superintendent, given significant local investment, and the underwhelming results to date —
Nutter: Well. I probably have to push back a little bit. I think we can’t just ignore the resource challenges the school district has. And while, yes, I have raised your taxes three, four, five times, which I’m sure all of you are completely thrilled with, a) It’s not good enough; and b) We were doing that at the same time that the state was cutting $300 million-plus out of the school system. It’s not only a money issue, but the lack of resources doesn’t help.
We need a contract between the PFT and the school district that’s fair for the teachers and fair to the public, that sets levels of accountability and some flexibility as to how we utilize the teachers where they’re desperately needed.
You’re also talking about children who in some instances, not all, are actually not ready for first grade coming out of the kindergarten and pre-K experience.
PM: Another huge, stubborn problem for the city is its extremely high rate of poverty. You said in a recent interview with Governing magazine that every mayor’s biggest fear is that his or her city could be the next Ferguson, the next Staten Island, the next Baltimore. You said: “Our communities of color, the recovery has just passed them by.” What can a mayor do about that?
Nutter: Our city treasurer just sent me an article in which Philadelphia was listed as number 19 of the top 20 richest cities in the United States of America. This is the schizophrenia here. We have the highest poverty rate of any of the top 10 cities in America. And we’re listed among the top 20 richest cities in the country. [Editor’s note: It was actually the Philly metro area that ranked on that particular list, not the city itself.] This is insanity.
We are not in danger — let me take that back. Every day, yes, there is a fear that you could have a situation that could become like a Ferguson. I think for the most part, relations between the citizens overall and the police department — leadership by Commissioner Ramsey, leadership by activists out in communities — I think we’re not particularly likely to find ourselves in that situation. But I worry about it anyway. And every mayor worries about it.
The recovery has passed a whole bunch of folks by. And I think that if you’re in a situation where pre-recession you didn’t have a job, and you missed the wave on this particular recovery, you have a real sense of “Nothing is going to change. I don’t see a way out.”
That is never a justification for crime, violence or anything else. But a certain level of desperation and despair will lead you to think, “My life doesn’t particularly matter. It doesn’t matter what I do if no one cares about me. And I will now do what I need to do for this moment.” And if you’re not sure that you’re going to make it out of your 20s in the first place, you will make a series of really bad decisions that could affect you for the rest of your life, or you’ll have no life at all.
This consistency of poverty in Philadelphia is not a new phenomenon. We’ve had an over 20 percent poverty rate for 30 years. It is strong. It is deep. It has a tight grip. It is intergenerational for some folks. And that — the inability to see any prospect for a brighter future — I think that decimates the spirit and soul of some folks. And if you get a lot of that, as it’s concentrated in parts of the city, that is a very toxic environment.
PM: How healthy is the city’s political culture right now? In terms of the political actors, the candidate bench, voter engagement — how vibrant is our civic life right now?
Nutter: It’s like the theme song from Love Story: Where do I begin? The acceptance, the seeming acceptance, of declining [voter] turnout, which I know is not just a Philadelphia phenomenon, but across the United States of America, is one of the most frightening local, state and national trends in recent American history. I think we should really be concerned by such lofty concepts as democracy and citizen participation, and what it means to be an American. People opt out of the process, then want to sit or stand on the sidelines and complain about what’s going on. If you don’t like what’s happening, take your butt to a polling place and vote and express yourself, as opposed to just sitting around and complaining.
So yeah, 26 percent, 25 percent, whatever percent, I mean, really, it is truly pathetic. And I’m sure in some of the instances, some of the folks who did not vote will be complaining next year about whatever is on their minds. I think you lose a little bit of your right to complain if you don’t take advantage of the right to vote in the first place.
The political environment: On the one hand, we’ve never had an election where no one signed up to run. On the other hand, I’ll be honest with you: I was a little concerned, early on, as 2014 was turning into ’15. I was concerned about the average age [of the mayoral contenders]. I mean, for a while there, when you looked at the array of folks talking about running, at one point the average age was plus-60. I’m 58, and I think 60 is the new 40, and I get all that. I love 60-year-olds. But I mean, this job — this is a serious job. And it takes a certain amount of energy and engagement. It’s an everyday job.
I’m increasingly concerned that many young people are just finding other avenues. And having nine million followers on Twitter is not your level of political engagement. Or sending out tweets every other day about whatever is on your mind — I mean, I tweet from time to time, and it’s really neat, but I want people to run for office.
There’s a nobility to this profession. This is an honorable profession where you actually get a psychic benefit just about every day, knowing that you helped improve somebody else’s life. And I understand that you can’t spend that at a supermarket. I get that. But someone needs to do this work and be committed to it, and it actually matters, what we do.
PM: It is a grueling job. What has it taken out of you, your family? What is the sacrifice involved?
Nutter: It’s not a nine-to-five gig. You’re going to miss some dinners, you’re going to miss some celebrations. You’re going to get calls in the middle of the night: This is on fire, somebody got hurt, somebody got shot. Any number of different things. There are a fair amount of sacrifices, and I am not complaining at all. I love this job and I love this work, but you know, I do have a wife, two kids, a house and responsibilities.
I can assure you this: When I turn a key in the door, the mayor thing is outside. It’s like, “I asked you to empty that sink out two days ago, and the stuff’s still there, what’s the problem?” “Well, you know, honey, I’m running the fifth largest city in the country, and … ”
So I’m a regular person, and I try to do regular stuff. But it has its impact. And you want good, focused, honest people to take on this challenge. Whether it’s being a mayor, being on City Council, one of the other offices, I think public service matters, and I want young people to think about it.
PM: Who really has the power in this town? We see you, we see Council, we know who the political actors are. Who really holds the keys? Who’s got the juice that we might not see?
Nutter: Well, as the 98th mayor of Philadelphia, I do. But you have to learn to play in the sandbox, and everyone has a role and responsibilities. So you know, the government was set up to have a strong-mayor form of government, which every now and then I have to remind some people about.
PM: Jim Kenney: You guys went to the Prep together. You’ve known each other a long time. You had your ups, had your downs. Is he going to be a good mayor?
Nutter: Yes. For a couple reasons. One, we did go to the same high school. Jesuit-trained. “Be a man for others.” These are fundamental core values that both of us grew up with. We both served in City Council. I’ve seen his work up-close and personal. And then as I was mayor and he was on the City Council, I saw his work closer — and more personal.
But again, the word I mentioned when we started, Jim Kenney has that passion for this city. He’s laid out an agenda and has a vision for this city that I think is a proper one, and he’ll be a great mayor. My hope is that we’re turning this city over, as the Athenian Oath reminds us, greater and better than we found it — that he can build on that foundation, put his own thumbprint on it, and be an even better mayor than I’ve been.
You know, our time is our time. The next mayor should never have to worry about the previous mayor, or the comparisons that will instantly get made by many members of the press. No one should have to try to be like somebody else. You should only have to worry about who you want to be.
He’ll be a great mayor, and the city will only progress. I think there is a momentum, there is a buzz to this town that has us well positioned to go to the next level and be an even greater city than we’ve been in recent months.
PM: What’s next for you?
Nutter: No idea. I’m going to be here in Philadelphia. This is my town, and I’m going to maintain a focus on the things I care passionately about. We have the Democratic National Convention next year. I’ll become a co-chair with Governor Rendell of the host committee. The presidential race itself, I’ll certainly be active in that regard.
From a work standpoint, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’ll take a little bit of a break. I’ve been in elected office for 22 and a half years. You know, I’ll slow it down a little bit and then get back out on the field. I have no idea what I’m going to do. But I’ll be around.
Published as “Nutter Looks Back” in the December 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.