Michael Nutter: The Mayor Who Cried Wolf

The diminishing power of Philadelphia

The latest round of budget battles in Philadelphia and Harrisburg further exposed Mayor Nutter’s political ineptitude and the city’s weak leadership at the state level. Where have you gone Ed Rendell, Vince Fumo and John Street? For most of the last two decades, those three dominated Philadelphia’s political landscape. Big things got done and taxes went down, not up. Like them or not—and there was plenty not to like—Rendell, Fumo and Street were strong leaders who knew how to balance bare-knuckled politics with the art of the deal.

In their place are a bunch of .250 hitters.

Take Mayor Nutter, please. He’s a nice guy and was a good city councilman, but as mayor he often appears overmatched. Nutter talks tough, but carries a toothpick. A string of high-profile defeats left him weakened entering the latest budget fight.

Consider: During the 2008 economic meltdown, he tried to close a handful of library branches, but got sued and lost. He then told City Council members to give up their government cars and they ignored him. He demanded the resignations of the BRT board and they told him to pack sand. During the PHA meltdown, he left his one board appointment in place until HUD came to the rescue. He called for the end of DROP, only to see Council modify it.
Pretty soon, Nutter will be known as the Mayor Who Cries Wolf.

Nutter’s handling of the budget this year left him looking smaller than ever. First he proclaimed there would be no more tax hikes. Two months later, Nutter began pushing his beloved soda tax, and increases in property and parking taxes.

Nutter claimed the added revenue was needed to save all-day kindergarten at the city’s public schools. But then Superintendent Arlene Ackerman found a way to pay for kindergarten. She made the announcement without telling the Mayor, leaving him looking like a man hanging out to dry. It’s hard to imagine a superintendent doing that to Rendell or Street and keeping their job through the weekend. Nutter’s response: He sent Ackerman a stern letter, but it lacked teeth.

Even with kindergarten funded, Nutter pushed for higher taxes. He wanted $100 million in new taxes but only got about half. State Sen. Vince Hughes argued the state would be more willing to kick in money for the schools if the city increased its funding. Sounded good. But most forgot that when it comes to bringing the bacon home from Harrisburg, Vince Hughes is no Vince Fumo. No surprise, the additional funding from Harrisburg came up short. Now the school district needs to cut another $35 million.

Even when Fumo was in the minority no state budget deal got done without his OK. As the Senate’s Democratic head of appropriations, he made sure Philadelphia got its share of funding. So did State Rep. Dwight Evans, who until last year was the Democratic head of appropriations in the House. With Fumo in prison and Evans voted out as appropriations chair, the Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg lacks political muscle.

Of course, for 16 years Rendell was the dominate figure as mayor or governor. In both roles, he was a strong and successful advocate for Philadelphia. As mayor, Rendell was close to President Clinton and worked well with Gov. Tom Ridge. He forged a solid relationship with Street, who as Council president and later mayor, always knew how to get enough votes to pass key measures. No one dared cross him.

Nutter lacks such relationships and skills, as well as the fear and respect of successful leaders. He supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Plus there’s not much new money coming from Washington these days. In Harrisburg, Republicans control both chambers and the governor’s mansion, while the Philadelphia delegation is dominated by bantamweights.

Meanwhile, Nutter’s old Council colleagues rarely follow his lead. Two years ago, he tried to raise property taxes almost 20 percent. Council rejected that proposal and instead raised the sales tax. Last year, Nutter proposed a soda tax and trash fee. Council shot down both ideas and raised property taxes. This year, Council again rebuffed Nutter’s soda tax, and then slashed the Mayor’s request to hike property taxes from 10 percent to 3.9 percent.

One of the more telling anecdotes during the negotiations came when Councilman William Greenlee asked Nutter why he was pushing the higher property tax rate, given his first choice—the soda tax—wouldn’t raise nearly as much money. The mayor’s response reportedly went something like this: “That’s not the way I wanted it, so I want more money.”

Make that the Mayor Who Whines Wolf.

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at davies2226@yahoo.com.