Why It’s Time to Shake Up How Philadelphia Elects Its Leaders

Hey, anybody out there want to be mayor?

By rights, Michael Nutter should be on the ropes.


In 2007, after all, he won just 37 percent of the Democratic primary — not a majority, not even close, but enough to secure his mayoralty — and since then, he’s hardly been what you’d call effective: The city revolted at many of his budget-cutting ideas; City Council laughed off his soda-tax proposal; and he couldn’t even force a vote on that lowest hanging of populist fruit, the city’s DROP program.

But he’s not in any real danger; indeed, his reelection is almost a foregone conclusion. That’s less a testament to his political skill than an indictment of a system in desperate need of fundamental reform — change that would not only make our elections more competitive and intellectually rigorous, but also kneecap our self-serving (Democratic) and comically incompetent (Republican) political parties, and maybe eradicate the last vestiges of patronage in the process.

Let’s make this a nonpartisan city.

It’s a simple proposal: The May primaries for mayor, council and other city positions would be free-for-alls, all comers welcome, after which each race’s top two finishers — if no one secures an outright majority — would move on to the November election. Had this been the case in 2007, Nutter would have faced Tom Knox in the general election, instead of whatever sacrificial lamb the Republicans had offered up. This year, Knox is set to run as an independent, which means we might get an actual battle of ideas in November, rather than a noisy primary followed by a coronation. But shouldn’t we be able to count on such an election every year?

It works elsewhere: Seventy-seven percent of this country’s municipalities, including seven of the 10 biggest — Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix among them — have nonpartisan elections. And with good reason: Local governments need innovation and dynamism, not leaders beholden to party kingmakers. Besides, when just 13 percent of registered voters are Republicans, party labels don’t help voters make decisions — the question isn’t whether a Democrat will win, but which one will. All our current regime does is reduce the Republican hacks to protecting their patronage jobs at the parking authority, while bestowing inordinate power upon Democratic hacks to muscle out anyone who poses a threat to the status quo (while securing their own patronage gigs, of course).

Meanwhile, no Philadelphia mayor has lost a second-term bid since 1952, and our current council members have served an average of nearly 16 years — that’s four full terms — the longest of any legislative body in a major city. This isn’t a democracy of which Ben Franklin would be proud.

Sadly, this discussion is probably academic. Amending the city charter — which turns 60 this spring — is a Sisyphean task: Two-thirds of City Council (or a majority, if someone rounded up about 43,000 signatures first) has to agree to put it to a citywide referendum, and since they all benefit from the present state of affairs, that doesn’t seem likely.

But given the city’s seemingly intractable problems and the inability of our leaders to solve them, perhaps it’s time we think about trying something new.