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Tom Wolf’s unprecedented political ascendency this week marked the beginning of a hopeful new chapter for Pennsylvania, as a nerdy, little known businessman from York emerged, nearly from thin air, to unseat a deeply unpopular governor.
It was an election not so dissimilar to the one in 2007 that saw a citywide wave of reform sentiment turn a nerdy, little known councilman named Michael Nutter into the mayor of Philadelphia. But as Wolf now speechifies about the dawn of a new political era for the Commonwealth, Nutter is serving out his final year as mayor in political isolation, the twilight of his once promising career in public office.
But Nutter is also keenly intelligent, ambitious and, at 57, still a young man in the world of politics. What will happen to the DJ-turned-councilman-turned-mayor? Will Nutter reinvent himself once again, or — as his many critics may not-so-secretly hope — simply fade into obscurity?
Nutter’s squeaky clean image and unlikely victory over a string of political heavy-hitters seven years ago brought him into office as something of a golden child. Now almost the stuff of legend, on his inauguration day, a line of well-wishers stretched around the apron of City Hall just to shake hands with the new mayor. But that all ended with a cratering global economy and plunging city revenues. Nutter infamously tried to close libraries and pools as a cost-saving measure, and talked tough to the city’s powerful municipal unions.
Years later, the golden boy is caricatured by labor unions as a grinch, and his unwillingness to make compromises in his political dealings has alienated nearly every municipal legislator. His ambitious bid to sell the city’s debt-laden gas works ended last week as simply the latest in a string of humiliations at the hands of a hostile City Council.
In public he fares only a bit better, having become widely perceived as partially culpable for the city’s education crisis — a crowd at Temple University’s Liacouras Center booed Nutter twice at a rally for Wolf, once after President Obama uttered the mayor’s name.
“He’s incredibly unpopular,” said one local campaign strategist, who asked to speak anonymously. “But he’s not just unpopular with your average Philadelphian. Labor hates him.”
Indeed, at another recent Wolf rally, Pete Matthews, president of the union for blue collar city employees, told the audience that, after defeating Corbett, they had to make sure the city “never again” elected a mayor like Michael Nutter.
So Nutter has baggage, to say the least. At one time there was talk of Nutter moving up to a statewide office — senator, maybe even a gubernatorial contender — but his unpopularity at home in a commonwealth already skeptical of Philly and its political culture makes this seem like a long shot. One source commented that Nutter running in a primary against Joe Sestak, the Democratic favorite to challenge Senator Pat Toomey in 2016, particularly without labor support, would “go nowhere.”
At the same time, many sources in the city’s political circles say that Nutter views lesser, but perhaps more attainable offices, like a state representative seat, as “beneath him.”
“For him to go from mayor of the fifth largest city to a freshman state rep in the minority? Maybe, but there’s also lots of ways all those things could go wrong. It might not be so different from his term as mayor, with lots of promise and even more unrealized potential.
“There’s nothing obvious for him to do next,” said a source. “But he’s a young guy, he’s gotta do something.”
Phil Goldsmith, former managing director and advisor to Mayor John Street, who says he was a “career counselor” in his early days, said he had some advice for Nutter.
“I would suggest the mayor take his time. I think he’ll get on some corporate boards … he could very well teach, become a university president, start a foundation,” he said. “I see a life for him that does not include going into politics directly.”
So, basically, retire from politics?
“No. The purpose would be to earn some money, to step back get a perspective on life a little bit and jump back in when the water’s right,” said Goldsmith. “I don’t agree with him on everything, but he has a hell of a positive legacy and if I understand this mayor he’ll make sure everyone before he leaves office understands what that legacy is.”
Hey, teaching isn’t so bad, right? After all, it’s where Street himself is these days.