Off the Cuff: June 2007

As I write this on deadline, the Democratic primary in Philadelphia is four days away, and at the moment, it looks like Michael Nutter will win, and become the next mayor in January. Somehow, we’ve managed to pick the right guy, out of a dismal field of candidates. Two of them can barely speak a declarative sentence. One of them wanted to be Lyndon Johnson, and simply throw money at our worst problems. A fourth makes up his life story as he goes along. It may be damning him with faint praise, but Michael Nutter, a smart man with a solid career in City Council, was the one we had to choose.

However, in the past couple of days, the Inquirer has reported that our mayor, the Honorable John Street, made phone calls trying to raise money to pay for anti-Nutter attack ads. These racist ads were designed to frighten black voters into believing that a vote for Nutter is a vote for Frank Rizzo, as if Nutter wants attack dogs and fire hoses to intimidate the black community into dropping their guns. Furthermore, the Mayor is annoyed that he’s been questioned about his role in these ads, telling reporters, “I actually reserve the right to talk about things when it is convenient for me.”

It is obvious to me that John Street hates Michael Nutter so much, and cares so little for his city, that he is willing to help Tom Knox become the next mayor. But it’s not as if Mayor Street is the only political heavyweight who places his own petty self-interest above the future of Philadelphia.

We’ve talked to most of the leading Democrats during the primary race, many of whom served under Ed Rendell, and most of them gave us an earful on how despicable Tom Knox is, on how he was running a dishonest campaign, on how he would have no clue what to do as mayor, on how he would have trouble getting good people to work for him, on how he would run City Hall like a monarchy, on how he has no idea how to deal with an entrenched bureaucracy — on and on and on and on. Tom Knox, the whispers went — please don’t quote me! — would be a disaster as mayor.

Even though it appeared, for most of this year, that Knox was going to win the primary, no one in the Rendell crowd was willing to go public with those opinions. I can’t help but wonder why Rendell himself, who loves Philadelphia, wasn’t willing to come forward to say how he really feels about Tom Knox. Maybe it’s because Knox gave money to his campaigns and worked for Rendell for a year and a half. But that’s placing loyalty over the future of the city, and even over the Governor’s own legacy.

Now I worry that after Michael Nutter wins the primary on the 15th, we’ll let out a collective sigh, as if, since we’ve avoided the disaster of Tom Knox and the other lightweights, we can simply sit back and let Nutter muddle through as we go about our business. But Nutter will need all the help he can get, first in learning how to lead a city, second in battling the usual entrenched interests. I also believe he needs to use the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office to start solving the deep problems of our poorest neighborhoods, to push and challenge. Will he do it?