Campaign Journal: Electile Dysfunction

Forget the polls, says our campaign watcher — Tom Knox is blowing his shot to be mayor.

“The problem with going last is all the good ideas are used up,” Tom Knox said the other night at a mayoral candidates forum, after three other mayoral contenders sitting with him on the dais had taken their shots at a policy question. Of all the inane things Knox said that night — “That's not the way you run Disneyland” and “The Internet actually works” among them — the millionaire's announcement of his own redundancy stood out. An expensive, self-funded burst of advertising early in the year shot him up in the polls, which means people are now listening to him. Yet Knox already seems to be running out of things to say.

Everything has happened the way it was supposed to for Knox's long-shot campaign. The three black candidates threaten to split the black vote evenly enough for a white candidate to win the Democratic primary. Jonathan Saidel, the other pro-business white candidate, dropped out. Only party chairman Bob Brady is left, and he's an almost perfect cartoon foil for Knox, the contrasts easy enough for a child to draw: inside vs. outside, machine mind-set vs. business mentality, old hand vs. new face.

But Knox seems not to believe his own résumé. Afraid of having his wealth or brief Republican past used against him, he insists repeatedly on proving his Democratic bona fides. He chooses to talk about drug treatment centers and the “social ills” casinos would bring rather than pitch fresh ideas about managing government. He projects none of the authority we expect from an ex-CEO. When he talks about his background, he focuses more on how he grew up in public housing than how he turned businesses around. Most days, it sounds like Knox is running to be the protagonist of a Dickens novel rather than mayor.

One night recently, Knox promised he would “hire Michael Nutter” to run his recycling program. It's natural that Knox would want Nutter working for him: The former councilman is a better CEO candidate than Knox. A longtime City Hall insider, Nutter speaks the language of efficiency; he has a business-like instinct for operations, and the air of the frustrated, jittery outsider. Nutter even seems to have adopted the most creepily corporate affectation of all: an eagerness to fire people who don't yet work for him. Whenever he's asked how he'd pull off one administrative reform or another, Nutter promises a Trump-like threat to deputies: “Get it done or you won't be working here anymore.”

That boardroom forcefulness — and impatience with political mediocrity — should be Knox's bailiwick. Instead, he's been reduced to begging. After offering to hire Nutter, Knox pleaded with Brady, Chaka Fattah and Dwight Evans to remain in their lawmaking day jobs. Then, “This would be a race between Michael and me,” Knox said.

“I could support that,” Nutter replied.

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