John Street’s Campaign Strategy

He might run for mayor just to save himself—and the city—from another four years of Michael Nutter

John Street does not want to be mayor. Not again. He has said this many times, to many people, including me. “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it. Believe me,” Street said. “People ask me to run all the time. I tell them, ‘You think it’s a good plan for me between the ages of 68 and 76 to be in City Hall?’ … If I were 10 years younger I might think about it.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that Street assumes were he to run and win he’d serve two terms, not just one. Street told me this last fall, back when he was trying—and failing—to goad someone, anyone, into challenging Michael Nutter in the Democratic primary.

Sadly for Street, the only one to answer the call was his brother, Milton.

Now it looks like the former mayor is rethinking things. He has changed his voter registration status from Democrat to Independent. That gives him the option to run against Nutter in November’s general election. It’s not because he suddenly wants to be mayor again. He got bored with the job last time around. Remember Street’s final year in office? Yeah, I don’t either.

But for Street, the idea of another four years of Michael Nutter is so intolerable, so infuriating, that he just might do it.

If he runs, he’s a serious contender, and don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise. For everyone who hates John Street in this town, there’s someone else who loves the guy. He’d start with 20 percent to 30 percent of the vote the day he entered the race, maybe more. But let’s save his electoral prospects for another day.

What interests me is what is going on inside Street’s mind. Because the real question here is this: Is he really considering running, or is he just screwing with Nutter’s head? I doubt if Street himself knows the answer to that question yet, but you cannot underestimate the depth of his personal and professional disdain for Michael Nutter.

I only got a handle on it myself when Street and I met to discuss Nutter last fall at the gazebo by the Art Museum overlooking the Fairmount Water Works. The former mayor was dressed in an orange Ralph Lauren Polo baseball hat, a black windbreaker with rainbow stripes, creased black dress pants and a pair of Nike running shoes. He looked very, very retired.

But then, for the next two hours, he relentlessly and convincingly attacked nearly every aspect of Nutter’s tenure in the mayor’s office. It was the best critique I’d heard of the Nutter administration. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t balanced. In some respects, it is not accurate (the branch libraries were never closed, people). But to me it sounded like a case that would convince a lot of voters that Nutter was not the best choice for them. It sounded like a preview of the campaign Street just might mount against his old foe.

Street on Nutter’s political failings
If you can get to nine (council votes) you can do anything you want to do. In order for council to do what it wants to do, it has to get 12. This is really a strong mayor form of government. Council can’t make you spend money you don’t want to spend. The mayor estimates all revenues. If you can’t get your way in this government (Street was laughing as he said this) you couldn’t get your way anywhere. I mean, the mayor has all the cards. Listen, I mean Nutter and some people up there fought me on anything but I always got what I needed. Every single time, I got what I needed.

Street on Nutter as mayor
I think he has been a bad mayor. He’s been a bad mayor for everyone. But he’s also been a horrible mayor for neighborhoods, and he has been especially bad for poor people and given the poverty rates in the African American community and unemployment rates and all of that he’s been horrible, horrible for us.

It’s the aggressive implementation of stop and frisk in the city that I think has fallen disproportionately on poor neighborhoods, largely African American neighborhoods and black men. It’s his decision to not appeal an arbitration agreement that allows the police to move out of the city. It’s his selling of Camp William Penn. It’s his decimation of the reentry program that we had that was one of the best in the country that now does almost nothing. It’s the way he with some degree of arrogance eliminated the after-school programs. He got rid of 400 parent truant officers in his first 30 days in office, and he didn’t even know he had a financial problem then.

He got rid of the curfew centers. He got rid of the adolescence violence reduction program. He just decimated these programs, and he did it in a way that failed to take into account the needs of these communities. He just almost randomly closed swimming pools in the city, in neighborhoods where these kids don’t have anything else to do and then in his election year he opened them all back up.

He’s closing branch libraries. Branch libraries are more than just a place where a family goes to pick up a book or two. These libraries have very important after-school programs in them. They represent a safe haven for people in communities where people are poor and a lot of time both parents are working. It’s just a long list of stuff. And it was as though the poverty factor associated with many of these communities didn’t matter.

Street on Nutter’s 2007 campaign
I actually think his opponents gave that election to him. I think it was theirs to lose, and they found a way to lose it. I think Neil Oxman did a great job in representing him … What Neil did was very creatively use my negatives in the community at large, mostly the white community, to advance Nutter’s interest and that’s fair. I don’t have any problems with that. Listen, in politics, there are rules. As long as you stay within those boundaries—and there’s an awful lot of space in those boundaries—and Neil Oxman and Nutter and them stayed within the boundaries, by and large, and they won. That’s politics.

Street on Nutter’s tax policy
Why would he want to charge two cents an ounce for sugar water? Doesn’t he know how disproportionately bad that’s going to be on poor people and especially poor African Americans who are stuck in these neighborhoods? A flat trash tax, or these property taxes. Let me tell you something. Most of the poor areas of this city [that] are occupied predominantly by African American families are all overassessed. These people are paying too much taxes now. And we’re a community that can’t be happy with the fact that all he’s done is raised taxes, and he hasn’t solved any of the city’s underlying economic problems.

Street on stop and frisk
Black people told Mayor Nutter when he was a candidate: ‘Don’t do this to us. This is not a good idea.’ It’s not like they weren’t doing stop before. [Street Police Commissioner] Sylvester Johnson did stop and frisk. But it was very different. It wasn’t some major strategy that was going to be implemented. But Nutter has done it to the extreme. He was kind of Giuliani-like in his approach to stop and frisk. (Street stressed in the interview that he blames Nutter alone, not Commissioner Ramsey or rank and file cops.)