The name of Mayor Michael Nutter, W’79, is being dropped more and more outside of Philadelphia. We talk with him about his relevance in the national political scene, as well as the power and limits of public policy.
By Matthew Brodsky
It is one thing to talk about doing something, another to actually do it. It’s a lesson that Michael Nutter, W’79, learned during his first term as mayor of Philadelphia.
When Wharton Magazine interviewed him shortly before his election in 2007, then-candidate Nutter said that, through his business acumen—and his Wharton knowledge—he knew he could run the city as a corporation. We sat down again with Mayor Nutter after his 2011 re-election, and he admits that things are a little more complicated than that.
Yes, he still sees himself as a CEO figure leading the nation’s fifth largest city. And, yes, he still praises his Wharton education for preparing him for his current role.
Philadelphia is buffeted by trends larger than itself—much like a corporation would be—including national and international macroeconomic forces, public opinions and political movements. And much like a CEO, Mayor Nutter has done everything in his power to steer his ship through these headwinds beyond his control.
His efforts have attracted national attention, both praise and criticism.
He’s been called everything from a “blame-game politician” to one of Esquire’s “2011 Americans of the Year.” Some critics assail him for not living up to the boldness of his campaign promises, while supporters laud him as a model for other elected leaders in these tough times.
Now that his first term has come to a close, we decided it was a good time to open our pages to him again. What follows are excerpts from a conversation we had with Mayor Nutter in his City Hall office.
Wharton Magazine: Do you see yourself as a role model for other mayors?
Mayor Michael Nutter: I don’t sit around thinking about the fact that I might be a role model. I’m clearly aware that all of us [mayors] talk to each other on a regular basis. … We have a network and recognize that all of us are pretty much in the same business, have many of the same issues and challenges and problems, and utilize that network and those ideas on a regular basis. …
And if someone thinks I’m doing something particularly noteworthy, certainly, that’s humbling and I appreciate that. But I’m a real public servant, and my obligations are of course first and foremost to the citizens of this city.
But also, as a true public servant, if we’re doing something that is working or is helpful, part of my job is to share that with other people. And if some component of what we do is applicable or can be adapted to their use, then have at it.
WM: Should more political leaders have your view, that you’re a CEO of the city?
NUTTER: First and foremost, that’s a personal choice. Every city is different, every circumstance is different. That might not be the mindset of the people in that city. The mayor may not want to force that particular point.
Whether it’s the CEO model, whether it’s running government as a business, whatever it may be, the mayors share, I believe, a common interest and concern: high productivity, low cost, deliver high quality services, make the city better for the citizens and taxpayers and children, seniors and many, many others. I think those are the fundamental, core values that the mayors I know hold true. Whether they think of themselves in that CEO role, you know, I think that’s a personal issue and a comfort level that any of those mayors would have to have.
I am very comfortable with that model.
WM: Some critics say you did a good job in your first term, but didn’t accomplish anything bold. Please comment.
NUTTER: I think that part of the boldness here was that we guided this city through what has been characterized as the worst recession since the Great Depression. Didn’t decimate the government. Didn’t decimate services. And have restored a level of fiscal stability to this city while managing an organization that was constantly, because of the economy, losing money.
It is pretty easy to govern and to do big, bold things when you have resources.
I think one of the bold things we did was, even in the midst of the recession, we lowered the crime rate unlike anything that had happened in the previous 10 to 20 years. That we’ve dramatically improved the perception and raised awareness about public education here in Philadelphia. That we continued to invest in some of our critical core assets like education and medicine and continue to support their efforts, which provide a lot of job opportunities here—while also again holding on to and attracting new businesses to come to Philadelphia—again at a time of great economic turmoil.
I think we have dramatically transformed the issue of ethics in government and taken away virtually this whole pay-to-play culture here in the city, and really transformed the city government into a place where people know: There are consequences to inappropriate actions.
I think that accomplishing those kinds of things in the midst of tremendous economic upheaval and turmoil, quite honestly, has been pretty bold and pretty dramatic.
WM: You mention attracting new businesses to the city. Do you think that business leaders have an easier time approaching you, given your business education and background?
NUTTER: I think that my fellow CEOs, if you will, know and understand that I have that kind of background, that I have both the legislative and executive record of being supportive of the business community, that I come from that orientation, and that, quite honestly, I attended one of the best business schools in the world. That’s helpful.
WM: Given the international scale of the macroeconomic forces affecting the city, how can a mayor address their effects on a local level?
NUTTER: First, obviously … virtually no city can take on the enormity of the national and international economic crisis. Even though I might not be able to do something about that, I can do something about policing, I can do something about schools, I can do something about jobs and the economic climate here, I can do something about integrity, I can do something about taking on issues like the green economy or clean-tech energy research, or supporting education and medicine.
There are some core fundamentals that happen at the local level that the city government has to make some decisions, critical decisions, about investment and support. … I think we have to be mindful of the things that we can actually do something about. I don’t have anything to do with international monetary banking policy. But if there is a business that needs a loan, then I need to figure out: How do we get them the financing that they need? How do I get more officers in the police academy? How do I call on the civil community to get actively engaged in the lives of their children? All of those things have value, and all of those things have meaning.
WM: Why did you go into public service? Was it something you got a taste for at Wharton?
NUTTER: What happened with me was, because of my finance background, while I was in my early stages in politics, I met someone who was actually a Wharton MBA grad, Malcolmn Pryor, WG’72, who had a firm here in Philadelphia. He was friends with an elected official, John Anderson, who I had started volunteering with and then worked for. One thing led to another. I started working with Malcolmn, and that’s really how my public finance career got started. It actually came through the political realm of having known someone who knew someone else. Maybe before networking was a term or a phrase, I kind of networked into that.
WM: What would your advice be to students and alumni looking to go into public policy?
NUTTER: One, I would encourage it. I think that public service is one of the greatest callings ever. It’s the knowledge that you can positively effect change in people’s lives on a regular basis, and make this city, this state, this country and this world, quite frankly, a better place for other people. For me, there’s just a tremendous psychic benefit to that, personal benefit to that. …
I think a public service experience is pretty much good for everyone. Whether you stay for a year, 10, 40, whatever the case may be, it’s a good backgrounder, it’s a good level of experience that’s going to help you do whatever it is you ultimately decide to do. But for me, I chose public service and I couldn’t be happier.