Michael Nutter is not afraid to curse.
In the last eight years, the mayor has cursed in public. He’s cursed during press conferences. In just his first year in office, he talked about two alleged criminals by saying “I would kick their ass myself.”
His staff and City Council know this side of Nutter well. It’s the fiery Nutter, the stubborn Nutter, the passionate Nutter. It’s the side of him that has resonated during eight years of pushing for Philadelphia to raise its national profile, while seeing many of his plans neutralized because that stubbornness raised hackles with those he needed in city government.
“There are certain things he just would not bend on,” says Angel Ortiz, a longtime friend of Nutter’s and a former Councilman, “and I think a lot of people are accustomed in Philadelphia to deal-making.”
In a little over a month, Michael Nutter will no longer be the mayor of Philadelphia, and about the only thing everyone can unanimously agree on about his tenure is that he really loved the song “Rapper’s Delight.” The rest of it won’t be so easy to digest, a mixture of wins and losses often colored by how you see him.
Under the 58-year-old Nutter, Philadelphia’s population grew for the first time in 57 years. It went from having an A- bond rating to an A+ bond rating. The murder rate dropped precipitously, as did the rate of violent crime. Efforts to stave off corruption in government were widely commended. Pope Francis visited, and the Democratic party chose the city as the backdrop to nominate its candidate for President. Philadelphia became a younger city; a cool one, too. It regularly pops up on trendy lists and has 20-somethings contemplating a future here, no mean feat for a burg between those pillars of drawing power, New York and Washington, D.C.
But the population increase pales in comparison to booms experienced by most other big American cities. The bond rating and improved economy are undermined by a still-high unemployment rate and an unsolved pension crisis. Half the city seemed to have left town for the pope’s visit after hearing about the traffic box, and few of the smaller-than-expected crowd tried any of Philly’s restaurants.
While millennials have gotten bike lanes and beer gardens, people outside the Center City bubble haven’t found his tenure nearly as beneficial. Many are still struggling with high poverty rates and suffer the effects of some city departments that have gotten arguably more labyrinthine and unaccountable under Nutter, notably the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
For his achievements, Nutter, a graduate of the illustrious Wharton School at Penn, was honored as a Public Official of the Year in 2014 by Governing magazine. He enjoys a key spot on the U.S. Conference of Mayors and has received praise from figures as distinguished as Barack Obama. For the problems, he had a 52 percent approval rating from Philadelphians in the last unbiased poll taken about him. Thousands booed Nutter at the Liacouras Center in North Philly last year in front of President Obama.
But Nutter’s supporters say all the while, cursing aside, his goals for the city were lofty.
“Even though Philadelphians, we often get in our own way,” former staffer Erica Atwood says, “he has made Philadelphia a lovable city to the world.”
A Center City mayor?
Some of the problems residents have expressed when it comes to Nutter were that they only ever saw him on TV. Nutter’s critics have frequently said they don’t often see him in the neighborhoods.
The perception that Nutter spent his time and energy largely in Center City could be because, like anyone else, he’s compared to his predecessor. While former Mayor John Street’s administration was dogged by allegations of corruption, his staff made a point of focusing attention and improvements on neighborhoods outside Center City.
“If you’re from the neighborhood, you want to see the mayor in the neighborhood,” Street told Billy Penn in October. “I mean, people think literally that Nutter never goes to neighborhoods, ever.”
Take President of the Mayfair Civic Association Donny Smith, who says he has only dealt with Michael Nutter in his neighborhood once. It was for a ribbon-cutting for the Mayfair Memorial Playground, a new structure in the neighborhood that residents raised money to construct.
“I think Mayor Nutter focused more of his energy and attention to things going on in Center City and tended to forget about everything north of that,” Smith says. “We had to scratch and claw to get things as far as city services go, and it just seems like a lot of attention is being devoted to Center City.”
That may be true. But under Nutter and his well-liked Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, no one can deny strides were made in other ways. In his administration’s extensive report released earlier this year, it was noted that violent crimes are down 17 percent since he took office and homicides decreased by more than 30 percent over the same period. Local funding for education increased during his term — largely through tax increases — and high school graduation rates rose, too.
Atwood, who served as Nutter’s Director of Black Male Engagement and recently left to become CEO of First Degree Consulting, said a major difference between Nutter and his predecessor was that Street was vocal about his priorities in the neighborhoods. Maybe, she said, Nutter’s administration didn’t get that message out. That doesn’t mean the focus wasn’t there.
“Mayor Nutter has spoken about growing Philadelphia as a whole, but that whole includes neighborhoods,” Atwood says. “And if you look at what has happened… since the Nutter Administration, there has been progress for good.”
‘A much more attractive city’
Angel Ortiz threw a party for his niece and dozens of her Wharton classmates when she graduated several years ago. He thinks about this when he considers Nutter’s contributions to Philadelphia.
At the party, Ortiz asked the classmates about their future plans and quickly found out Philadelphia was not part of them for anyone: “They all said, ‘We love this city. We like it, but we gotta leave.’”
Another niece, Adriana, soon graduates from University of the Arts. She’s pursuing an acting career and will eventually leave for Los Angeles. But Ortiz says she wants to postpone the move for at least a year and believes she’ll be able to get as much work here than she would in New York.
“I think that’s part of Michael’s thing,” Ortiz says. “I think he leaves the city a much more attractive city for young people and young entrepreneurs and techies and so on.”
Nutter’s addressed this himself on many occasions: He’s wanted Philadelphia to be a more worldly and more attractive city since he took office — one that Philadelphians not only want to stay in, but one that people from across the globe come to visit.
“I want to raise the level of expectation in this city,” he said recently to Philadelphia Magazine. “Sometimes when I talk about Philadelphia, I’m not just talking about the government. I want us to expect more from each other. I want us to expect more from our city government, and I want us to be a place of choice. I’m not going to allow us to be the place between New York and Washington, D.C.”
Things that weren’t here before Nutter became mayor: Flashier buildings. Creative spaces. Forbes’ Under 30 Summit. The Democratic National Convention. Pope Francis’ visit. The new designation as a World Heritage City. The Schuylkill Boardwalk and renovations to the Schuylkill River Trails. Indego bike share. Beer gardens.
These are largely Center City accomplishments. Many are tailored more to young professionals than the 27 percent of Philadelphians living in poverty. But Councilman Kenyatta Johnson sees Nutter’s Center City progress as a natural segue from the focus of his two most recent predecessors.
“When Rendell came in it was on the brink of fiscal disaster,” Johnson says. “So he invested heavily in Center City to set the tone for Street to go back to the neighborhoods. And then Nutter came in and said, ‘Now we’ll begin on focusing on having a younger city, by having a green city, more bike lanes.’ We have an international city where people come from around the world to enjoy themselves. …I listen closely to my constituents and they feel like we’re in a good position.”
As for the neighborhoods and Philly’s impoverished community? Johnson reels off several improvements in this area, from creating programs like PowerCorpsPHL and Philly Future Track, both designed to benefit underprivileged Philadelphia youth, to revitalizing community parks, such as the Marian Anderson Recreation Center and Smith Playground in South Philly.
“Maybe,” Johnson says, “his team should have been more forward in marketing those accomplishments.”
And it’s probably fair to say communication — with the public, and with many of his former colleagues on Council — were never Nutter’s strong points.
The political battles
One of Nutter’s first major disagreements with City Council came soon after inauguration. It was in 2008 in the wake of nationwide recession, and Nutter was looking for ways to slash the city budget. He chose to focus cuts on libraries.
In his budget proposal, Nutter wanted to close 11 library branches starting at the end of the year. But City Council felt left out of the decision-making process and some members went to court for an injunction on the move. A judge ruled Nutter had to seek Council approval to close the physical branches, and Council had won the first major battle. Positions within the library system were still eliminated and its budget was cut. Today, Nutter calls it the “absolute worst decision” in his 20 years in public service.
During his own 14 years on City Council, Nutter was seen as a reformer. By 2005, 14 of his bills had been vetoed by Street and Nutter was still pledging to introduce more. At the time, he had other colleagues in his corner.
Jay A. McCalla, a political consultant and former city managing director, says from his perspective, Nutter got ahead in City Council because of where he sat: Right near the press. He’d make side comments or short remarks to reporters during Council proceedings and cultivated positive relationships in the city’s press corps.
But observers say he didn’t cultivate or keep those relationships with some of the people who’d been on Council for years and would eventually work alongside him while he was mayor. Ortiz said mayors Goode, Rendell and Street had go-to groups on Council they could rely on for assistance. Nutter didn’t.
Jim Kenney, the mayor-elect and a former Councilman, recalled communication as one of Nutter’s biggest problems. His lack of discussion with Council on the botched sale of PGW stands out.
“You’re the CEO of a 4-point something billion dollar company and you want to sell the biggest asset that the company owns and you don’t want to talk to your board of directors about it?” Kenney says. “There’s no private entity in the world that any CEO could get away with that, and that’s what happened.”
Kenney says Council members would sometimes find out details of Nutter decisions after they happened and not in discussions with them beforehand.
“I don’t know the psychological view or feeling that he had for why he didn’t need to do that,” he says. “I think his administration would have been more successful had he done that.”
“It’s things like that,” McCalla says, “that let you know the mayor has no friends on Council.”
Meanwhile, his strengths from Council didn’t always translate to the mayor’s office. His relationship with the press over the last eight years has crumbled — his press secretary was recently called “McUseless” in The Daily News; after a question at a press conference, he said he thought journalists “scared the shit” out of people before the Pope’s visit — and some say his reform mentality didn’t make it to the executive branch.
“That didn’t translate into a reforming mayor,” says John Featherman, a Republican who ran for mayor in 2011 and is a staunch critic of Nutter’s. “It’s not easy to be mayor because you can’t make everybody happy. But in time, people are going to see that Nutter was more of a manager than a leader. He was not transformational. He didn’t inspire people.”
And he didn’t transform one of the city departments that most badly needed it.
Frustrations with L&I and organized labor
The roof came tumbling down on June 5, 2013. A four-story, free-standing wall that was under demolition fell on top of the Goodwill store at 22nd and Market. Six people died, and 14 people were injured. The tragedy underscored a political embarrassment for Nutter: The city’s oft-maligned Department of Licenses and Inspections.
L&I was supposed to be one of Nutter’s major overhauls. He pledged in 2007 to “blow up” the long-scrutinized city agency that regulates Philadelphia’s buildings.
“Well he blew up L&I and did nothing to fix it,” says Bennett Levin, a former L&I Commissioner. “That’s the big failure of the administration — that people died and there was never a fix.”
L&I illustrated a fundamental problem many political Philadelphians had with Nutter. They think he didn’t know how to run a city and staffed it not only with some under-qualified people, but with too many deputy mayor positions that decentralized and complicated duties while adding more names to the payroll.
Rather than select Streets Department commissioner David Perri (who has been selected as Kenney’s L&I chief) to run the department, Nutter chose Carlton Williams. Williams had been a deputy Streets commissioner whose worked focused on recycling and recreation. Nutter kept him on staff throughout not only the Market Street collapse but numerous departmental flaws exposed by the city controller, The Inquirer, and an ongoing FBI investigation.
Nutter also struggled to work with the city’s huge labor sector. He irked leaders by vetoing paid sick leave bills — twice. A large part of his eight years in office was spent with municipal unions that never agreed to contracts, and he was often the target of anger from electricians’ union boss John Dougherty.
During Nutter’s 2013 budget address, protesters angry with his handling of the contract talks yelled and whistled over the mayor for 10 minutes. The Council session had to be adjourned.
“[Nutter] came in and he accomplished a few things, but he fell far short of being an administration of the best and the brightest,” says Leon A. King II, a former deputy city solicitor under Ed Rendell and prison commissioner under Street. “I personally was disappointed in Mayor Nutter, and that began from the day he was elected. It just became apparent that he didn’t believe in what he was saying. It was all show. Smoke and mirrors.”
On the Broad Street Line
It’s been a tradition for mayoral candidates to canvass Philadelphia’s subway lines during their campaigns. Ed Rendell greeted commuters often when he was trying to convince Philadelphia to trust him and save his political career in 1991. Doug Oliver hustled between the BSL and the El nearly every day this spring hoping to introduce himself to as many people as possible before May’s primary.
But what about after the campaigns? What do people who take public transit think of the man Philadelphia elected to serve for eight years?
Tamika Johnson, who lives in Hunting Park, has seen Nutter out and about when she visits her mother near City Line Avenue and thinks it feels like spotting a celebrity. She sees success from Nutter in the way her block has looked after snowstorms for the past eight years.
“The main streets,” she says, “are always clear.”
Other people at the North Philadelphia station on the Broad Street Line were split, with slightly more having an unfavorable opinion of Nutter. Robert Sutton thinks Nutter hasn’t done enough for the homeless or for revitalizing vacant properties. Pat Leavingston is still upset Nutter closed 11 libraries in 2008 to save some money. Some people didn’t like Nutter but weren’t quite sure why.
“I don’t have anything good to say about him,” says an elderly woman named Betty who only gave her first name.
Charlie Brock has heard similar comments from his friends and family throughout Nutter’s tenure. He doesn’t understand the negativity. He has been pleased with what the Nutter administration has accomplished: Putting Philadelphia on the world stage and making the city more appealing to tourists.
“People expected him to come to every neighborhood,” he says, “when there were real things and issues that needed to be done.”
On Monday, Brock was listening to sports radio. One of the radio personalities was talking about Kobe Bryant’s retirement and how Bryant kept doing his job in spite of all the boos. Brock thought of Nutter as having done the same.
“You’ve got to be a helluva person,” he says, “to put up with the stuff in this city.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Billy Penn referenced an older approval rating for Nutter and has corrected it to the correct rating. We regret the error.