Richard Negrin’s Second Act

Nutter's managing director is putting his political ambitions on hold for a partnership at Obermayer.

Richard Negrin.

Richard Negrin.

Richard Negrin, Philadelphia’s managing director, is leaving the Nutter administration just a bit early (by days, really) to become a partner at Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel, a politically-connected, Philadelphia oriented law firm.

Negrin had contemplated running for public office, either in a 2015 mayoral bid or in another race down the line. Those ambitions, he said in an phone interview, are tabled for now. “I love public service, but I’ve gotten it out of my system for a while,” Negrin said.

Traditionally, the managing director of the City of Philadelphia has been the clear #2 in city government. As far as the City Charter is concerned, the Managing Director is the chief operating officer of the city. But that wasn’t the case with Negrin, because it wasn’t what Mayor Nutter wanted from his Managing Director.

Instead, Nutter divvied up operational power among an array of deputy mayors. Under Mayor Nutter, the Managing Director became, in essence, the deputy mayor for administration (which was one of Negrin’s titles) and, much more interestingly, the chief scientist in the new government laboratory.

Negrin was City Hall’s in-house management guru — which is either great or awful, depending on how you feel about the management innovation industry. Negrin was the guy behind Philly Rising. He brought 311 to mobile platforms. He created the city’s “innovation lab.” Before he was named managing director, Nutter brought him into city government as a short-term crisis management CEO to right the sinking ship that was the Board of Revision of Taxes.

“I’m most proud of the great people we brought into city government. I think we’ve really started to change the culture of government in Philadelphia,” Negrin said.

But even after he became managing director, Negrin never became part of Nutter’s inner-inner-circle. He took the managing director’s job in 2010, two years after Nutter was sworn-in. Mayor Nutter’s first choice for the job, the city-hopping pro Camille Cates Barnett, didn’t work out — she lost her husband in a tragic car accident literally days before she was scheduled to start the job, which must have made the work exponentially more difficult for her.

As a potential political candidate, Negrin had some obvious strengths. He’s charismatic and memorable, and he’s got a compelling personal story. Negrin was raised in Newark by Cuban immigrants; as a 13-year-old, Negrin witnessed the murder of his father — a leading advocate of rapprochement with Castro and Cuba —by anti-Fidel radicals. In college, Negrin was captain of the football team and an all-American offensive lineman (he is a big man, and he played briefly in the NFL, though he never made the game-day cut). He got a law degree from Rutgers, did the big law firm thing at Morgan Lewis — Philly’s biggest firm — served on the city’s Board of Ethics, became associate general counsel of Aramark, then took that job at the BRT.

That’s a good resume for elected office, and it’s clear that Negrin kicked the tires. But while Negrin absolutely has fans and followers, he lacks a clear political base. He is, like Nutter himself, an independent sort who’d have few high profile political allies if he ran.

Negrin chose Obermayer, he said, because the firm “has a rich tradition of what I like to call ‘citizen lawyers; a lot of people who are very civically active, they are very committed to Philadelphia and that really resonated with me.” Negrin says he also hopes to teach a pair of courses at Fels Institute of Government at Penn, and he’ll serve on the board of Ceasefire PA.

As for the next Managing Director, Michael DiBerardinis, Negrin has only good things to say: “his extensive experience in government and knowledge of the City and how things work make him an excellent choice.”