By Natalie Pompilio, photos by Ryan Donnell
Michael Nutter, W’79, is serious about doing the right thing.
The day started around 9 a.m. at the Philadelphia Zoo. The Man Who Would Be Mayor pulled a free t-shirt over his long sleeve shirt and tie, stepped to the microphone, and welcomed walkers to the charity walk-a-thon.
Two hours later, he was on Independence Mall, one of the many politicians on hand for the groundbreaking of a new museum. An hour after that, he was in South Philadelphia, standing in the pulpit of a church, asking the congregation for their votes—and their prayers.
And so it went one Sunday one month before the election that would propel Michael Nutter, W’79, into City Hall.
In truth, he didn’t have to work this hard. His post was as good as won: Democrats have helmed the city since 1952, and the party enjoys a 5-1 voter registration advantage. Post-primary analysis showed Nutter’s victory over four other candidates was also notable because he garnered more white votes than any other African American in city history.
But Nutter, 50, a married father of two, said he campaigns on two speeds—“fast and faster.”
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “Everything that got me here, it doesn’t make sense to slow down now.”
What got him here are dozens of handshakes and photo ops, hours on the telephone seeking contributions, speaking appearances and debates and policy meetings. He resigned his seat on the Philadelphia City Council a year ago to focus, a bold move considering many thought he had no chance. He had to.
“I have to give 100 percent to what I’m involved in. The only way for me to do this and do it well and do it right was not to have any other responsibilities,” he said.
Then he put it in business terms: “This is all about risk and reward. In terms of what I accomplished, it was a good business decision. In terms of having money in my pocket, it was not a good business decision. When you’re passionate about something, you often have to make these tradeoffs.”
Few thought he would pull it off. At one point last year, it seemed Tom Knox, a businessman who spent more than $10 million of his own money on his mayoral campaign, was headed towards a Democratic primary victory. Knox had started advertising on television and radio in August 2006, the first candidate out of the box, and never stopped. Knox portrayed himself as a political outsider in a city where political insiders were under fire.
He finished second.
And, if not Knox, then it seemed the likely winner would have been U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city Democratic chairman with the strongest union support, or U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, an early front-runner who had name recognition and an unrivaled election machine. Or, if not them, then State Rep. Dwight Evans, who had earned the praise of Ed Rendell, the popular Pennsylvania governer and former Philadelphia mayor.
But Nutter? He was respected by some City Hall watchers and had the endorsements of the city’s two mainstream newspapers, but two months before the primary, a poll showed that almost half of Philadelphians had never heard of him.
“Three weeks or four weeks out,” City Hall watcher Zack Stalberg said, “no one would have predicted Nutter would be the winner.”
Serious About Doing the Right Thing
Nutter grew up in West Philadelphia, attended prestigious St. Joseph’s Preparatory, and arrived at Penn in the mid-1970s with an eye on a pre-med degree. Instead, he ended up at Wharton, graduating in 1979 with a degree in entrepreneurial management.
“My Wharton experience helped shape my view of running this city as a corporation,” Nutter said. “It’s a $4 billion corporation called the City of Philadelphia: 22,000 employees, 17 members of City Council as a board of directors, and I have a million and a half shareholders, the citizens of Philadelphia, who work hard, pay their taxes and expect a return on their investment.”
He wasn’t a great student, he admits. “I kind of split my time between going to class and working in a nightclub. Some days and many nights the club was more interesting than the library… Like Mark Twain, I was a very firm believer in not letting my schooling get in the way of my education.”
An investment broker when he won his Council seat in 1991, Nutter was known as a smart, outspoken politician. He was the guy who did his homework, asked tough questions, wasn’t afraid to be a lone voice in the woods. Often considered a “reformer,” Nutter and another City Councilman led the fights to establish the Tax Reform Commission and to reduce wage and business taxes.
He tackled controversial issues, like a citywide smoking ban and ethics reform bills that would eventually shape the race he won. “A one man city council,” is how one admirer described him in a 2005 article.
He was also considered a little too boring, a little too serious. The word “wonk” was—and is—often used to describe him.
Supporters say Nutter’s focus in a good thing. He may be serious, but he’s serious about doing the right thing. Stalberg—chairman and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization dedicated to improving life in the Philadelphia region—recalled the morning Nutter called him at 5:45 a.m.
“I thought it was some emergency,” Stalberg said. “He just starts to talk about an issue he cares about and finally I said, ‘Michael, it’s not 6:00 yet. Can I shave before I talk about this?’ I think he knew it wasn’t 6:00 yet, but he wanted to talk about it.”
And he is funny, those close to him say. “He was always hysterical in high school,” said City Councilman Jim Kenney, who knows Nutter from St. Joe’s Prep. “He’s funnier than people give him credit for. We used to call each other from across the room during Council. I would call him up and say ridiculous things to make him laugh in the middle of the debate and he would text message back. It was like being in a classroom.”
How Nutter communicates what he does is not as important as what he’s saying, observers say. Nutter, political consultant Larry Ceisler said, understands nuances, that issues are not just two-sided, and he presents himself clearly.
“Even though he has sort of a monotone speaking voice and isn’t the most inspiring person in the world, Michael communicates very well and people understand where he’s coming from,” Ceisler said. “I watched the forums and Michael was the only one who truly enjoyed campaigning and understood why he was there. He would get to an event early, he’d enjoy the people and he actually understood the process.”
Indeed, on that fall day a month before the election, Nutter worked the crowds like the professional politician many consider him to be. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, drew people into conversations. Many people assumed he was already mayor, calling him by the title
“Do you enjoy your job, Mr. Mayor?” Shaleeta Pressley, 20, asked Nutter after he’d signed her t-shirt.
“I do. I’ll like it even more when I get down there,” he said.
At another point in the day, a man called out to Nutter.
“Mayor, mayor, mayor,” he said, “just do me a favor. Just do a better job than Street. Please.”
Nutter smiled. “That won’t be hard,” he said.
Voters’ dissatisfaction with Mayor John Street played a big part in the Democratic primary. A federal investigation of pay-to-play politics in city contracting resulted in two dozen convictions. Although an FBI bug was placed in Street’s office, he was not indicted.
Still, the convictions tainted Street’s administration. Those, coupled with the city’s rising murder rate—some national media have called it “Killadelphia”—and Street’s general aloofness—one political insider called him “a Sphinx”—had quashed the mayor’s popularity. A 2007 poll showed that 77 percent of voters wanted the city to go in a different direction.
Nutter’s camp used that dissatisfaction—and television advertising—to his advantage. Although Knox was the first to hit the airwaves—and the other candidates followed—Nutter’s campaign was strategic, holding its ads until the seven weeks before the election and then buying airtime consistently until the end. One newspaper headline said of his victory: “A perfect storm of ads, timing, issues fuels Nutter win in Philly.”
One of the first ads told voters that City Hall needed cleaning out and Nutter was the person principled enough to do it. Neil Oxman, Nutter’s media consultant, said some people were shocked by the message and the implied attack on Street, who wasn’t in the running. Still, they responded to it, he said.
“That propelled us from last place to second place within ten days,” Oxman said.
That ad campaign may have turned voters’ heads, but the 30-second spot that had people talking was the one featuring the candidate’s daughter, Olivia. (Nutter also has an adult son.) In it, the smiling 12-year-old, who bears a strong resemblance to her father, gives viewers a tour of her life, including an introduction to her dog, her favorite food and the public school where her father drops her off every day. “My dad’s pretty cool for an old guy,” she says. Nutter speaks once, to wish his daughter a good day as she gets out of the car.
“That sort of humanized Michael,” Oxman said. “The only thing people really knew about him was his comments from City Council. He wasn’t well known. He’d never run citywide. He had a particular problem with African American women voters. And when we put that ad on, his polls shot up.”
Nutter’s personal touch also helped. Limited by campaign finance rules he’d helped craft, Nutter raised his money the old-fashioned way.
“He would spend six hours a day on the telephone doing it and that made the biggest difference,” Stalberg said. “He touched a lot of people individually. After they give money, they’re more likely to vote for him. They’re also impressed by his work ethic, and it takes a lot of work ethic to ask for $50, $100 at a time.”
On the night he won the May primary, Nutter stood with his wife and daughter by his side and addressed a packed ballroom of supporters at a downtown hotel. He put his achievement modestly.
“We had a really decent couple of weeks,” he said. “We had a really good day.”
A Cheerleader for the City
Now Nutter the councilman must become Nutter the mayor. He’ll go from running a council office to running a city.
“It’s a different mind set,” Kenney said. “He’s going to have to allow people around him to deal with problems and challenges. He has to avoid the temptation of all intelligent people to micromanage. A big part of the mayor’s job is being a cheerleader.”
Economic leaders like Joseph Zuritsky, CEO of the Philadelphia-based Parkway Corporation, hopes that cheer- leading will bring new jobs to the city.
“He’s a good representative of the city of Philadelphia,” Zuritsky said. “A new mayor will improve public relations and I think we’re going to see a resurgence of people wanting to do business here.”
Nutter knows business: He served as Chairman of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Board from February 2003 to April 2007, leaving the unpaid position to focus on his mayoral campaign. While there, he helped craft a pivotal labor-management agreement and spearheaded the Center’s $700 million expansion.
In addition, Nutter said he wants to eliminate the gross receipts portion of the business privilege tax over time and reduce the net income portion. He also wants to see a reduction in the city’s wage tax, which affects not only residents but people who work in the city and live in the suburbs. The combined business tax burdens currently mean it costs more to do business in Philadelphia than in six other major cities, including Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, according to a 2006 study done by the Philadelphia Business Journal. Only New York places a higher burden on its businesses.
“Michael recognizes that the city can’t take care of its services unless there is a growing job base and the attraction of new businesses to the city,” Zuritsky said. “His attempts to reduce the business privilege tax and wage tax will have an excellent impact on attracting and holding existing jobs.”
The only danger, Zuritsky said, is that people may expect too much.
“There are limitations in what Mike can do,” Zuritsky said. “If he handles himself in the right way and works with City Council, he can do a lot and overcome a lot of the problems he’s inherited.”
Working with the council could be a challenge. Indeed, Nutter was often the one to butt heads with Street, earning him a reputation as a lone wolf and a voice in the darkness. Nutter said he has learned to compromise, but there is only so far he’ll give.
“I don’t believe that ultimately having anything is better than nothing. In the political environment, people will often say, ‘I’ll settle for the sake of getting something’ and I think that undermines the point,” Nutter said. “Much too often here in political life, here in Philadelphia, we’ve been ready to accept any old thing, second or third best, because we have this collective self-image, self-esteem, problem, that somehow we’re not worthy of better. I want to change those standards and set high expectations for ourselves: the public officials and our public.”
Kenney predicts Nutter will have a workable majority of Council support. Although he backed Brady during the primary, Kenney said he was looking forward to working with a Nutter administration “with an enthusiasm I haven’t had in the last few years.”
“We can’t be obstructionists or naysayers,” Kenney said. “The Council and the Mayor need to show a united face. Sadly, over the last four years, we haven’t done that.”
The fact that Nutter often did stand alone works for him now. During his first year, he faces tough negotiations with the city’s four largest unions when their contracts expire in June. The final contracts will shape the city’s financial future for years to come, and Nutter will likely seek significant concessions on health benefits and pensions.
“He wasn’t supported by anybody with the exception of the papers and the people. He had no unions, no elected officials, nobody,” Ceisler said. “It’s actually an advantage to him because he goes into office owing no one.”
Asked about what changes to expect during the first year of his administration, the first thing Nutter says is: “It will be cleaner.” Literally, in that he’ll call for a citywide clean-up.
And figuratively, as he attacks the crime problem and further cleans up the mess that was City Hall in the Street administration. During the primary season, he proposed police use “stop and frisk” procedures in high-crime areas, a concept that worried some civil libertarians. To rebuild confidence in government, he wants to crack down on no-bid contracts and bring new blood into politics. Part of that, he said, would be introducing graduates of Wharton and other area colleges to public service.
“They’ll find the same challenges here,” Nutter said. “While the financial rewards might not be comparable, I think the human rewards are almost immeasurable.”
He also wants to turn Philadelphia into what he called “an education city.” Two numbers, he said, are key to the future of the city: 45 and 18. The first number refers to the percentage of public school students who drop out. The second is the percentage of residents that have a four-year degree.
“We cannot survive as a city… if those two numbers stay the same,” Nutter said.
And, he said, he wants to make the city fun again. He wants city dwellers to be proud of their home. Part of doing that will fall to him: Philadelphians love a leader who is out there embodying the spirit of the city. Ed Rendell did it. John Street did not. The city needs someone who fits its view of itself.
Stalberg thinks Nutter may have the goods: “I think there’s a good chance Nutter will grow into that role and really present a great positive image for Philadelphia and make Philadelphians feel good about themselves again.”
Former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Natalie Pompilio writes and lives in Philadelphia.