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

Suddenly, it isn’t Nutter who appears to be serving our interests and solving problems. It’s Brady. The same guy who ran against Nutter in the 2007 race and got dusted, finishing a distant third to the Nutter juggernaut. Brady’s working-class accent and reputation as a kind of old-timey political lever-puller were no match for Nutter’s eloquence and change-agent sales pitch. But in the race since, the race to actually be mayor? Well, on a regular basis, that’s a race Bob Brady wins.

EVERY POLITICAN TRIES to tell the public a story about who he is and what he stands for. But a mayor’s story is particularly important, because the narrative surrounding a city’s mayor becomes part and parcel of how a city sees itself. Rendell, by this analysis, was all good. America’s Mayor restored Philadelphia’s self-image as a foremost American city. The Street story was mixed. His Neighborhood Transformation Initiative cleared abandoned homes and cars from city streets and cemented his image as Philadelphia’s Neighborhoods Mayor, but then he was tainted by the corruption investigation.

Nutter could have told a great story. He ran as a reformer, which felt just right after Street. He promised to clean up city government — no more pay-to-play politics. And he vowed to reduce a surging violent crime rate. On these fronts, he’s delivered — or started to. But after the national economy tanked, those issues seemed far less urgent, and Nutter has never regained control of his narrative. “I don’t think the Mayor has any identity,” says City Councilman Bill Green. “And I don’t think he’s formulated an agenda or vision that will give him one.”

Actually, though, Nutter has cast an image for himself: He’s the downer mayor, a killjoy with his eye on every penny, the man who doesn’t love a parade. And it’s Brady, of all politicians, providing the contrast that defines our mayor. Up until the last year or so, there had been a commonly received story about Brady, too — and it wasn’t flattering. The local Democratic Party chair was the pit boss of Philadelphia politics — the guy who makes sure the house wins, the powerful stay in power, and the Machine. Grinds. On.

In fact, after losing the mayor’s race, Brady had never looked more vulnerable — at home or in Congress. He told any reporter who asked that he hated D.C. and preferred to spend his time in Philly. And right after the election, there was talk that a Gerry Lenfest-funded candidate would run against him. But Nutter himself fended off the threat, writing an editorial that chased the potential challenger into the hills. Such was Nutter Power in the heady days after he won office; such was Brady Weakness in that same moment. But just two years later, the script is flipped.