Michael Nutter, Mayor Enigma

Sometimes a blurry identity is a political advantange

Councilman Michael Nutter was the confrontational policy wonk who got results. Candidate Nutter was the anti-crime crusader who would clean up City Hall. What about Mayor Nutter. Who’s he? That’s a question that can’t be answered in just a few words.

He’s a solid manager who has tweaked city government, but declined to reinvent it. And he’s the guy who preserved a lot of programs in tough times, but only after trying to close libraries and fire stations first. Oh, and he’s the guy who has pissed off everyone from City Council to city labor unions, even as he refrains from challenging them head on.

In other words, Mayor Nutter, even after three years on the job, is something of an enigma. Unlike Nutter the candidate, or Nutter the councilman, Nutter the mayor is a puzzle to the public.

Strange as it sounds, that might be to Nutter’s political advantage.

Nutter’s numerous critics so far seem unable to mount a clear, convincing case against him, perhaps because nobody agrees on just what kind of mayor he is. Depending on who’s doing the bashing, Nutter is either anti-little people or anti-business. He’s either failed to clean house fast enough, or he’s unnecessarily alienated the party insiders he needs to get things done.

You’re left with the sense that a lot of people are vaguely dissatisfied with the mayor, but they’re unable to articulate why. It’s tough to beat an opponent who defies easy characterization.

With this morning’s news that Tom Knox will endorse Nutter instead of challenging him, the primary field looks almost entirely clear for the incumbent mayor. So far, Nutter’s only declared opponents are Milton Street and John Featherman, a Republican who won’t even get the endorsement of his own party. Tax reform advocate Brett Mandel is mulling over a challenge, but he appears to doubt that people are willing to cross a sitting mayor, particularly when there’s no black and white case against Nutter.

Isaiah Thompson wrestled with this dynamic in last week’s City Paper, when he wrote that “even if he wins re-election, Nutter’s path forward isn’t obvious. Then again, neither is he.”

Love him or hate him, nobody was unclear on who John Street was. Fans saw a neighborhood mayor who shifted focus and funds to down-and-out communities. Foes saw Street as an abrasive, racially divisive figure who was hostile to Center City.

Same for Rendell. Pro: He balanced the books and restored Philadelphia’s image and self-confidence. Con: He was Fast Eddie.

At the Daily News, Larry Platt argued last week that “the Nutter mayoralty is, at heart, a failure of narrative. What, after all, does Michael Nutter stand for? Where is Philadelphia, in his mind, five or 10 or 20 years down the road?”

I’m not sure it’s automatic that a failed narrative necessarily means a failed mayoralty. However swept up the city was in the bold image of the future Nutter laid out three years ago, most Philadelphians will settle for competence and core services, particularly in tough times (see Ben Waxman’s take from last week).

Inasmuch as they acknowledge at all that Nutter lacks a clear identity (which isn’t very much), administration officials tend to say that grand narratives go out the window fast when the economy melts down.

Now that the city’s budget crisis is easing, Nutter has a chance to sharpen his blurry image. Odds are, his re-election isn’t riding on it. But it’s hard to see Philadelphians rallying to him like they did in 2008 as long as they can’t figure the guy out.

Follow Patrick Kerkstra at twitter.com/pkerkstra