Desperately Seeking Leadership: Philadelphia’s Next Mayor

The next mayor's race is still two years away, but the field is shaping up to be a depressing array of hacks and usual suspects. Maybe it's time to call Philadelphia's civic leadership exactly what it is: Cowardly and pathetic.

There is someone else, of course. Many someones, in fact.

If Philadelphia could look past the professional political class for leadership—as so many other cities have—the number of outstanding mayoral prospects increases dramatically. There are plenty of capable, charismatic and politically astute business executives, activists and nonprofit titans in this city.

There is no shortage of supply. There does seem, however, to be a critical shortage of nerve in the ranks of the city’s non-governmental leaders. The disconnect between what they say they want for the city and their willingness to entrust its governance to City Hall lifers is staggering.

In private conversations, private-sector and nonprofit leaders tell you they’re disgusted with City Hall. Indeed, many of them have been disgusted for decades. But they rarely register their disdain publicly. It’s even more uncommon for them to actively support anti-establishment candidates. And—with the notable exceptions of Knox and Katz—there have been no high-profile private-sector leaders to take the plunge and actually run for office in Philadelphia since John Egan took on Frank Rizzo in the 1980s.

But why?

There’s little doubt in the minds of political experts that an outsider could win. Indeed, many think the 2015 mayor’s race is ripe for the plucking if the right political newcomer emerges. I think they’re right. Party big shots might still be able to dictate who wins obscure offices (register of wills, sheriff, etc.) in most years. But the city’s electorate proved when it picked Nutter (who had a conventional résumé but an unconventional relationship with the political establishment) that it’s willing to buck party honchos for the mayor’s race. Just ask the 2007 mayoral also-rans: party boss Bob Brady, U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah and State Rep Dwight Evans.

And the prospects for an outsider candidacy have only improved since then. Every year, there are fewer native-born Philadelphians voting in city elections, a trend that chips away at old political allegiances created by neighborhood identity and racial and ethnic loyalties.

So why aren’t qualified private and nonprofit leaders (and by that I mean more than just bored rich white guys) lining up to run for what remains the single most important job in Philadelphia?

Mayor Nutter is screaming, but nobody can hear him. He has a microphone, he’s standing at the podium in City Council chambers, and he is bellowing. But it doesn’t matter. I’m sitting maybe 20 feet from him on this March afternoon, and I can’t hear a word. Nobody can. Nutter is completely drowned out by the monstrous roaring and whistling of hundreds of livid municipal-union workers. They are screaming epithets. Their eyes are bulging. The ones in the balcony, behind a glass barrier, remind me of roaring fans at a hockey game taunting an opposing player in a penalty box.

Only this is the mayor, not a Rangers defenseman. And this is the day of his budget speech, the occasion each year when the mayor addresses City Council. There’s a bit of pomp and circumstance; the reporters dress up a tad, and the TV stations show up. It’s supposed to be Nutter’s day, and it’s being stolen from him by union workers blowing into plastic whistles with all the venom and wind they can muster.

This goes on for about four minutes, though it feels much longer. And then, abruptly, City Council President Darrell Clarke and the rest of Council leadership simply bail on the Mayor. They leave the dais without telling him, having recessed the Council session. And there the Mayor dangles, alone, shouting soundlessly at the very workers he has been elected to manage.

“There’s nothing for me to be embarrassed about,” Nutter says later that day. And technically, he’s right. He comported himself with dignity in Council chambers and handled the awkward questions from the press afterward with restraint and good humor.

Even so, it must have been a humiliating experience. And for plenty of private and nonprofit leaders toying with the notion of elected office, the entire spectacle was chilling. Indeed, in a lot of ways, Mayor Nutter’s six years in office serve as one big red flag for accomplished outsiders considering a run for mayor.

They look at Michael Nutter and see a mayor who is smart, hardworking, personable, ethically clean and popular. (His 60 percent approval rating in February is the highest it’s been in the past three years.) And yet even with those gifts, Nutter has been unable to make significant headway on some of the city’s most vexing problems—a point frequently mentioned in political circles and among many business and nonprofit leaders.

The union stalemate is a case in point. The verbal beating Nutter absorbed at this year’s budget address was simply the loudest and highest-profile expression of the vitriol municipal union workers have been spitting at the Mayor since 2009, when the contracts for AFSCME blue- and white-
c­ollar unions expired. And yet despite all the abuse he has endured, and all the political capital he has expended in the fight, Nutter has little to show for his years of battling the unions. There have been no revolutionary new contracts. No comprehensive long-term pension fixes. The unions are simply waiting Nutter out.

This is the sort of dynamic that quickly cools the electoral interests of many leaders—
not the unions, per se, but the intractability of the city’s problems generally. Some say privately that Philadelphia’s woes are too deep to be solved by city government. The poverty is too rooted, the bureaucracy too entrenched and inefficient, the inequality too staggering, and the prospects of dealing with the political class too depressing for accomplished civic leaders to chuck it all and run for an office like mayor.

This doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the city. They just tend to think they can accomplish more out of government than within. Why take a pay cut and subject yourself to that sort of scrutiny, they say, to quite possibly do less for the public good?

Consider Paul Levy and the Center City District, an organization that has probably had more to do with Center City’s resurgence than City Hall. The business improvement district has its own source of funding and its own board of directors. There are no work rules, apart from standard state and federal guidelines that all employers adhere to. The district’s budget is $19.4 million a year, and with that it fields a private security force, cleans Center City, markets downtown and downtown businesses, publishes scads of city-oriented research (much of which has a very pointed policy agenda), and manages major construction projects, like the reconstruction of Dilworth Plaza and the makeover of Sister Cities Park.

What does $19.4 million buy in city government? Much, much less.

Mayors have to sell their agendas to a City Council with 17 self-interested operators, not to a compliant board of directors. At any moment, your carefully laid plans can be overrun by events entirely out of your control: A cop is shot. The economy tanks. The feds investigate an associate.

There are reporters dogging you most days, anxious to point out any and all missteps. Privacy is nonexistent. For the natural-born politician, the attention is addictive. For those wired more normally, it’s terrifying.