Michael Nutter Exposed Himself

Will the real mayor ever come forward?

The real Michael Nutter keeps leaking out. It happened again this week, when he and Don Schwarz, his health czar, said no to a $10 million grant from the soda industry for an anti-obesity program. “It seems to me that accepting money from the beverage industry to fight obesity would be like taking money from … the tobacco industry for smoking cessations,” Nutter said. “I mean, it’s ludicrous.”

It used to come out much more often, that side of Nutter, the moralist, when he was on City Council and willing to take risks: ethics reform, the indoor smoking ban, being a thorn in the side of John Street. A few weeks ago Nutter stood up at his church and, in the context of flash mobs, railed about the way children are raised in the inner city—that wasn’t a leak, more like a blowout. Then, this week:

“Taking money from Big Soda to fight obesity is like taking money from the NRA to fight guns,” Nutter said. “You can’t buy this City Hall.”

But he won’t stay on it—he’ll back away from pushing his concern over childhood obesity. Because Michael Nutter is conflicted over who he should be, as mayor. Still. When you look at Nutter’s legacy, and what his eight years in City Hall will mean to the city, what is there?

No major scandals might be it.

Somewhere, he became Bob Brady. A pleaser. Unwilling to get into nasty wrestling with municipal unions over contracts—that would have been the nuts-and-bolts fight to restructure city government financially.

In May, after the formality of the primary assured another four years of Nutter, ex-Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick wrote about the mayor’s dual nature:

You can’t be the political reformer who ends up basing his endorsements of Council candidates in the May primary on their willingness to vote for Marian Tasco for Council President. And you can’t be the opponent of the DROP program while supporting Tasco, the surviving poster girl of DROP abuse … You can’t be the champion of openness and transparency in government and then get caught trying to sneak in a tax increase …

Same-old vs. new way. Which is he? Ferrick asked political insiders what Nutter should do, during his second term.

“Do something,” one said. “Legacies are not made of ‘I was interested in everything and did nothing.’” The insiders all said that Nutter needs “to narrow the distance between what he says and what he does.”

I have a slightly different take on that: If he’s going to accomplish anything, and actually stand for something, and maybe even leave a legacy, Nutter needs to close the gap between what he does and who he is.

Because, every now and then, he leaks through:

In his office, the mayor has a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew. He likes to tell visitors that drinking it is like ingesting 19 packets of sugar, that “it’s really nothing more than fat in a bottle.” And Nutter has tried—twice—to raise city taxes on sodas, as a way to raise money, certainly, but for a better and deeper reason: the health of our kids.

Oh, City Council—which really had trouble wrapping its collective head around why Nutter would toss back that $10 million grant when we’re so strapped for cash—will break out the violins and decry the nanny state and suggest that Nutter take on a problem he can actually do something about.

But Penn bioethicist Art Caplan has called the city “ground zero in the beverage wars.” So why not? Why not use the bully pulpit of a second term and take on the way the city feeds itself, or the way its children are being raised, and have at it? Take on an issue crucial to the life of his city, one that Nutter really believes in.

It came out again this week. Who he really is. Michael Nutter should stick with that. Because it’s his only shot at figuring out how to be mayor.