In this end-of-year interview, Mayor Michael Nutter sounds off on his first term in office and looks ahead to a new year and another stint as Philly’s commander-in-chief. Nutter talks candidly about a range of topics including his easy win in the November election, his handling of Occupy Philly, the biggest challenges facing the city heading into 2012 and the issues that keep him up at night.
PW: Despite what the ballot said in November, you ran for re-election virtually unopposed. Why do you think that neither the Republican side of the ballot or any independent candidate was able to give you any sort of real competition in the 2011 election?
Mayor Nutter: Ultimately that’s really a decision that the voters make. I think that like any other incumbent either democrat or republican—city, state or federal—these are very tough times. Economically and socially. People have lost their jobs, their homes. They’ve lost their health care. Pensions are under attack. Their children’s future is to some extent uncertain. There’s a lot of pain, anguish, anger and fear. And people have watched, certainly me as a mayor. But I think more importantly me as a mayor and the City Council trying to do our part at the local level. Obviously we cannot change the course of the national economy. And I think people have looked at it on the one hand and said, "You know this is really bad and we do not like some of the things that are going on. We don’t like some of the decisions that have been made; but it’s tough times and it’s not the city’s fault or the mayor’s fault. It’s an international economic crisis." On the other hand, what they say to me is, "Look I know you are doing the best you can. I still don’t like what you are doing, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do."
I think Philadelphians understand. They’re not happy. I’m not happy with the current situation. I didn’t like many of the decisions I had to make. This is not what I was thinking about when I ran for mayor. No one saw this international economic crisis coming. It hit and we had to make some tough decisions early on. And what I do enjoy about this job is that you get to make decisions and chart a course. Ultimately, what we have been able to do is chart a course for this city through the worst economic times since the Great Depression. Maintain our core city services. Did not lay off one police officer, firefighter, social worker or one sanitation worker. Kept our central services going forward. Continued to stay focused on public safety, public education, jobs and running the government with integrity. Taken on many number of challenges and new initiatives. Development on the waterfront, development at the navy yard, development in our neighborhoods. We’ve made some dent in homelessness in Philadelphia. We said we were going to lower the crime rate, we have. We said we were going to do better on education. Graduation rates are up. Companies are still opening businesses in this city. Companies are relocating to Philadelphia. Population went up for the first time in 60 years. So there are some positive things on the horizon. We have some challenging days ahead. But as I said on election night, we’re not done yet ... One of the great things about public service is that there are never any two days that are alike. It will push you, it will test you, it will stretch you each and every moment. Fortunately, I have some of the greatest public servants to work with anywhere in the United States. We’re on a mission to improve the lives and the livelihoods and the outcomes … We cannot leave anyone behind.
PW: What do you think is the single biggest challenge facing the city heading into 2012?
Mayor Nutter: You’ll have to excuse me if I do not just give you one answer because this is a big city and big cities have big challenges and big opportunities. There’s never one single thing that I get to work on. I will give you some context for that. We have some big challenges. First, we have to knock down the unemployment rate here in the city. That will help us in a number of areas. One, more people working means a little less pain and anxiety out in the community. Two, people working means less folks who may turn to crime. More people working reminds our young people that there is a reason they are in school and that they can have a brighter future as well. That will help us with our graduation rate and young people going on to college. One of the most critical things that is ripping out the heart and soul of this city is criminal activity. In particular, violent crime, shootings and homicides. It has a tremendously devastating effect and disproportionate effect on the African-American community, specifically African-American males. So, I want everyone to key in on this … I want everyone to imagine what this city would be like with 50 to 100 fewer homicides. This is not just a moral issue. This is an economic issue, a social-economic issue that has a devastating impact on our communities. But it’s also the psychological impact that it has on a community when people hear shots or see somebody lying in the street. So I will be particularly focused in that area and also greater support for what I call returning citizens. Those who have been incarcerated and are now coming back home. We need to stay focused on that segment of the population because they are most likely potential next offenders or victims. Poverty, homelessness, hunger and illiteracy, combined with an excessive accessibility to illegal handguns, is a very toxic mix. So those are the great challenges that face us. Those are the areas where I will be most focused and concentrating on. And then of course, there is my co-passion, which is the focus on education. For school-age young people as well as adults. The comebackers—those that started college but didn’t finish and those that didn’t have the opportunity to go. We need to make sure that people understand that if we invest in education, that will solve and help cure many of the ills and challenges that we face on a daily basis.
PW: Earlier in the year when the enhanced youth curfew was signed into law, there were some, namely [mayoral candidate] Diop Rahman, that protested the bill on the grounds of being racist. What would you say to someone like him and the people that protested the bill on the grounds of it being racist?
Mayor Nutter: The bill applies citywide. It applies to all young people regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, gender or anything else. Saying the bill was racist is complete nonsense. One of the wonderful things about this country is that it is a free country and that you can say whatever you want, doesn’t mean you are correct. The bill applies to every young person regardless of any factor, apart from age.
PW: You’ve been criticized in some circles for making visits to schools that are in “good” neighborhoods, and not making visits to what they call underperforming schools. Do you think this is just critics that are trying to pigeonhole you as being insecure to a commitment to inner-city school reform?
Mayor Nutter: I think that this is criticism from people that have no idea how many schools I actually go to. I go to schools all over the city. Regardless of neighborhood. One, I get invited to a lot of schools, so part of that is I go to the schools I am invited to. Again, it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding or information about my schedule. Just about every visit I make to a school is on my public schedule, and I make visits to schools all over the city.
PW: You mentioned earlier that one of the goals in your second term is to get illegal guns off the streets. How exactly do you plan on accomplishing this because it seems to be a very daunting mountain to climb.
Mayor Nutter: It’s a daunting mountain of bodies that we cannot overlook all over this city. Which is a result of the proliferation of illegal guns across the city. We’ve been working with our partners in law enforcement up and down the federal, state and local chain. We’re putting together a variety of ideas and strategies to enable us to take on this great challenge. I will be making announcements about more of the details of some of the things that we plan to do. It should be clear to everyone that I will not stop my efforts to get illegal guns off the streets and out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. I will do what needs to be done within the law to carry out that goal. I’m calling on the community at large to take a stand. This should be a rallying cry that none of us should ever accept gun violence in the city. I am going to be relentless in my efforts.
PW: Do you have any regrets in the way the city handled the Occupy Philly movement?
Mayor Nutter: No. I think we did, under the circumstances, as decent and respectful job as we possibly could.
PW: One of the issues that you were criticized on in your first term was the potential of closing public libraries and the rolling brownouts of fire stations. Why was it that those two necessary institutions were targeted for cutbacks?
Mayor Nutter: Yes, the closing of libraries was a proposal. We needed to save money. Ultimately, we did save the money and none of the libraries were closed. We learned a big lesson and should have handled the situation differently. In regard to the brownouts of fire stations, if you talk to any longtime Philadelphia firefighters the fire department has utilized that particular management tool for probably the past 40 years. We did not invent that ... No firefighter lost a job or was laid off, and we maintained our service levels. The fire department has performed spectacularly over the past few years. And none of the stations ever closed.
PW: What’s one promise you made to the citizens of Philadelphia that you believe you did not follow through on as well as you could have?
Mayor Nutter: For one thing, I try not to make too many promises and over deliver. If anything, I think I am disappointed in the fact that we did not achieve some of the very ambitious goals we set in a few different areas. Still, we made movement. Either numbers went up when we wanted them to go up, and numbers went down when we wanted them to go down. I am very aggressive, and I have very high standards. I¹m always pushing for more. That¹s what we use to help drive the organization. We have more work to do. We are by no means done and I am just going to keep pushing hard every day.