Politics: Honey, I Shrunk the Mayor

What do the Mummers Parade, the SEPTA negotiations, the Dad Vail Regatta and the Manayunk bike race have in common? All required Congressman Bob Brady to swoop in and bail out Mayor Michael Nutter

ONE NIGHT LATE last October, Congressman Bob Brady was home, waiting for the phone to ring. Brady seems to get involved in almost every sensitive city labor negotiation, and SEPTA employees had been working without a contract for almost eight months. He was virtually certain he’d be called in to help broker this deal, too. But he wasn’t going to drive from his Overbrook home to the talks unless his phone rang. He’d be a distraction if he walked in beforehand, and lacking the power that comes with an invitation.

Governor Ed Rendell, like Brady, knew as much. Don’t include me until I’m absolutely necessary, he instructed.

For Mayor Michael Nutter, the calculations involved were different. Unlike Brady, he lacked experience at labor negotiations. Unlike Rendell, he had no money. For him, then, the political calculus was basic math: When a man brings nothing to the negotiating table, said man shouldn’t go to the table at all. Or if he goes, he ought to keep quiet.

But Michael Nutter subverted the math. He went into the conference room at the Bellevue — and he talked. He advocated, fiercely by most accounts, against raises for SEPTA workers. The received wisdom is that he wanted to send a tough message to the city’s unions. But instead he told another story — a story about himself and the first two years of his administration: I’m new at this.

The two sides had been edging toward a deal, but when TWU president Willie Brown got a load of Nutter’s performance, he walked — and he took his roughly 5,000 transit workers with him. “They struck over nothing,” says political consultant and former Brady aide Ken Snyder. “When you look at how little changed when the deal got done, they struck just because Willie Brown was pissed off.”

Pissed off, all right. At Michael Nutter. The New Guy. In one of the most memorable and demeaning tirades ever inflicted on a first-term Philadelphia mayor, Brown sat before a mass of reporters and called Nutter “Little Caesar.”

“Michael Nutter … brought nothing to the table,” he said, “nothing at all, other than dissension,” and later referred to the walkout as “Nutter’s strike.”

It is hard to conceive of a worse outcome for any mayor: thousands of city residents, mostly its poorest, stuck by the roadside. But things did get worse. Because Bob Brady played the role he always does in union negotiations: He overcame the natural mistrust between labor and management, soothed egos, and brokered a deal. And in the end, he told a story, too: When Mayor Nutter has fallen, I pick him up.

The Mummers Parade. The Manayunk bike race. Brady loomed as the connect, the guy who could find money for worthy causes. The Dad Vail Regatta. The SEPTA strike. Brady was the man who facilitated communication. Most recently, he started pushing to bring the Democratic National Convention to Philly.