by caroline waxler | December 6, 2011 | People
and reviewing results with campaign manager Kevin Kinross and special assistant Luke Butler
... having a private moment with his daughter, Olivia, before her intro...
Election Night 2011: Giving his acceptance speech while his wife, Lisa, looks on...
It is Election Night, and Mayor Nutter is happy. “It looks like we are going to win,” he tells me. “We are 50 percent of the 77 percent [reporting precincts].” Surrounding him are his campaign manager, Kevin Kinross, his director of communications, Desiree Peterkin-Bell, and his special assistant, Luke Butler. They are reviewing the election results, with mounting glee, and Nutter’s soon-to-be-delivered acceptance speech while the mayor’s wife, family, friends, and supporters socialize around them in a 12th-floor suite at the Warwick Hotel. Nutter’s 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, sits in an adjoining room studying for the next day’s AP history test on the Constitution (she deserves an A for the introduction she gives her father at his victory celebration later that evening). With Mayor Nutter’s victory a foregone conclusion, the mood is jovial and relaxed, the only uncertainty being when Republican challenger Karen Brown will concede so the mayor can head down to the mezzanine to give his speech. And then the real party will begin—for the guests, that is. As Nutter stated in that speech, “This is just the beginning. We have much more work to do.”
|Nutter with President Obama earlier this year before a town hall meeting on clean energy|
The mayor is scheduled to be up at 5 am the next day for multiple appearances on local news shows, followed by a raft of radio interviews, and then he is off to the White House for the African American Policy in Action Leadership Conference, discussing topics dear to both President Obama’s agenda and his own. Chief among them is how to strengthen the economy through the American Jobs Act, job training, community development initiatives, strategies targeting poverty, providing access to capital for growing businesses, reforming the education system, and protecting civil rights.
Nutter’s administration formed a very strong partnership with the White House during his first term through almost weekly contact with the Obama administration, which frequently seeks City Hall’s support for the president’s initiatives. The president came to Philadelphia on Election Day; the mayor greeted Obama at Air Force One, where the President summed up their relationship as such: “He’s a great partner of ours.”
Matters of Principle
Ethical is the first word that comes to mind when talking about Nutter with those who know him. Take Butler, his oh-so British and ever-present special assistant who brings to mind Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series (seeing the two of them together cues the Odd Couple theme song). He joined the mayor’s campaign from England—where he had been working for a political consultancy firm—precisely because of the man’s ethics. “When I knew I was moving to Philly from London [for graduate school at Penn], I did some research and read about a guy called Michael Nutter who was running for mayor. People said that he was smart, that he was the ethics guy—and that he had no chance of winning! I met up with him when I got here and joined the campaign, which at that stage was about five people in a tiny room in the Wachovia Building.”
“In this day and age, when the public doesn’t trust its elected officials,” says David Cohen, Comcast executive vice president and chairman of the Board of Trustees for the University of Pennsylvania, “Mayor Nutter has proven that he’s a man of his word. When he ran four years ago, he had a simple but ambitious platform that included reducing crime, improving public education, and returning ethics and integrity to the government.” Indeed, framed on both the mayor’s wall and the back of his business card, you will find The Athenian Oath that the citizenry of ancient Athens had to recite:
“We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
You get the feeling that in the not-too-distant future, if Mayor Nutter gets his way, Philadelphians will be reciting this, too.
|With Hillary Clinton the night she won the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary in 2008|
The oath speaks to Nutter’s ethics as well as to his enthusiasm for and boosterism of his hometown. He is a man who genuinely enjoys speaking to crowds of his fellow citizens. On our first day together, Nutter tells me, “I love what I do. I love being around people. I love getting things done.” Butler reaffirms this: “The mayor loves meeting people; it energizes him and is a constant reminder of why he does the job. He was like that in City Council, he was like that during the campaign, and he hasn’t changed as mayor.” Butler continues, saying, “He’s very approachable, so a hundred times a day, people come up to him to shake his hand, say hello, or take a picture with him. Of course, he never says no, which is why it’s almost impossible to stay on schedule.”
And it is a formidable schedule. During the course of our interviews, we attend a grand opening celebration of a Wawa (complete with a hoagie-building contest), visit a health fair at Al-Aqsa Islamic Society to extend greetings during the annual Islamic holiday of Eid-al-Adha, and appear at a GMC & United Way Playground build in Hunting Park, alongside notables such as Ron Jaworski and Vince Papale. And that was just a portion of his busy calendar. Though no day is typical, it is not unheard of for the mayor to make 15 to 18 “stops” (press conferences, meetings, speeches, showing up at events) on any given day. Undeterred by his seemingly endless appointments, Nutter confesses to me, “I’m excited every day. I’m the mayor of my hometown. It is a privilege.”
The mayor is a man of action who does his best work in motion—often in a 2008 Chevy Hybrid Tahoe he bought with campaign funds the first time around and donated to the city right after his inauguration. “He sees himself as a problem solver, and so when we’re out in neighborhoods across the city, he will literally take notes on his business cards of issues that people raise with him,” says Butler. “He’ll take out his BlackBerry and take a picture of an abandoned building, a vacant lot, or a missing street sign, e-mail it to a commissioner, and a few days later, the problem will be fixed. He likes getting things done.”
Lorann “Sunflower” Powell attended the mayor’s victory celebration for just that reason. This summer she and her neighbor, Tracy, invited him to a cookout in their South Philadelphia neighborhood. Once they sated the mayor’s appetite with all his favorite items—a turkey burger, black bean dip, seltzer—the neighbors showed him the hazardous eyesore of an empty lot filled with trees and debris that was challenging their street. Within weeks it was fixed. “He’s a good guy,” she says. “He’s got my vote.”
Most people will agree that Mayor Nutter has not had an easy time of it, so it is not surprising that making someone’s day might just make his. After winning a dramatic election in 2007, he watched the economy plummet just as he was settling into office. “It’s been a difficult four years,” says his wife, Lisa. Yet, “notwithstanding a terrible national and local economy, Mayor Nutter has been able to deliver on each of his promises, and Philadelphia and its citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries of his efforts,” says Cohen.
Despite his solid fan base and re-election victory, there are detractors and critics of the mayor. One major setback came early in this election cycle when the firefighters’ union endorsed Nutter’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Milton Street. Bill Gault, president of Firefighter’s Local 22, summed up the union’s unhappiness in the face of departmental cutbacks: “It’s about brownouts, it’s about closings, it’s about the bad treatment the Philadelphia firefighters and medics have received from this current mayor.”
The Issues at Hand
Nutter’s focus for the coming years will be an extension and augmentation of what he is currently targeting: increasing jobs, getting illegal guns off the street, improving the quality of local education, enhancing the lives of Philadelphians, and working to create a national agenda for African-American males.
As far as job growth is concerned, he is spearheading the conversion of the Philadelphia Navy Yard into a clean-energy campus. Already the Navy Yard includes more than 100 companies, 8,000 employees, and $400 million in private investment. The mayor shared this part of his vision in his acceptance speech on November 8. “Four years ago, I said that Philly could be the greenest city in the United States of America. Today the federal government is investing $130 million at our Navy Yard to build a clean-tech hub, our recycling rate is three times higher than it has ever been, and we are one of the leading cities in America taking advantage of the growth in the green economy.” The mayor hopes that this “greening” will translate into the other sort of green—which will go into Philadelphians’ pockets in the form of new jobs. “If you’ve got a job, you’re paying taxes. If you’ve got a job, you’re supporting yourself and your family. If you’ve got a job, you’re not running around the streets engaging in all this nonsense that we see out here. Making sure Philadelphians have jobs is my number-one job.”
When dealing with the Herculean problem of gun control, the mayor is smarter than to tangle with the NRA. Instead his focus is on curbing and ultimately stopping the proliferation of illegal guns. “Did you know that now you can rent a gun?” he asked incredulously. “Illegal guns are contributing to the slaughter of African-American men and boys across America, and we’re not done until the penalty for being caught with one of these weapons is so severe that it makes you think twice about touching one, let alone carrying one.” Since he took office, there are 14 percent fewer shootings, 15 percent fewer violent crimes, and a 20 percent drop in homicides.
|Phillies fanatic: Celebrating with the team after their 2008 World Series win|
As for education, when Nutter entered his first term, he faced the same dilemmas as other big-city mayors: shrinking budgets, low test scores, a wall of bureaucracy, and one special circumstance: The state government had taken control of the school district during the 2001 budget crisis and was not making a success of it. In spite of these challenges, the mayor has made headway in improving city schools, starting with establishing the Mayor’s Office on Education to create a new funding formula, bringing an additional $51 million dollars in funding to Philadelphia students. “Four years ago, I said that more of our young people should be graduating from high school and going on to college. Today—for the first time—the high school graduation rate has increased to more than 60 percent, we have had nine straight years of testscore gains—the best of any major school district in the country—and the percentage of Philadelphians with a college degree is on the rise.” Although there is still a long way to go, Nutter is committed to continuing the struggle. “We cannot grow, we cannot compete, we cannot prosper as a city if we do not focus like a laser beam on creating a learning environment that allows each child to reach his or her full potential. It’s a moral imperative, and it’s an economic imperative.”
In September he signed an executive order to reestablish the Mayor’s Commission on African- American Males, cochaired by former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who created it 20 years ago; Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee; and Jamar “Izzo” Izzard, a radio host at 107.9 FM. The commission was formed to address issues related to unemployment, incarceration, lack of education, and healthcare for African-American males. In October, Nutter hosted the Cities United Conference, which dealt with how to respond to the problem of violence in African-American communities and to account for the societal and familial impacts of this violence. Nutter feels very strongly about improving the plight of African-American men and boys in his city. “I’m the mayor of all Philadelphians, and it’s my responsibility to create jobs, improve education, and enhance public safety for people, no matter what neighborhood they live in. But the numbers don’t lie, and there is a particular problem in cities across this country with African-American men and boys killing African-American men and boys. That’s an outrage, a national problem, and something that we have to talk about honestly, deal with, and address.”
Heading into his next term, Nutter will be focusing on both the local and the national scene. Most notably, he is the likely incoming president of The United States Conference of Mayors, the official nonpartisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 or more; if elected, he would succeed the current USCM president, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.
Former longtime Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, who came out to Nutter’s election-night festivities, said, “I’m here as a supporter and a groupie,” and marveled at the speed with which Nutter was elected president of the USCM. “He’s only been mayor four years; it took me 16!”
In the end, it does not seem to matter that his presence will be felt more and more on a national scale. It is easy to see that the mayor likes it right here at home. Witness this election-night tweet: “Thank you #philly for the honor of serving as your Mayor for the next 4 yrs. I will do all I can to make this city better for everyone.”
photography by ryan collerd; Kait Privitera (election night)