Strongly Supported and Unopposed, But Is Nutter the Best Man For the Job?

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 25, 2011

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All fall, the vultures were circling. Mayor Nutter is vulnerable, the whispers said. Black people don't like him. Business owners are fed up. He can't control City Council and is too timid to stand up to the unions. The mayor was up against the cliff, sword at his throat-- Could the unthinkable happen, a Democratic mayor in Philadelphia ousted after only four years, not winning the seemingly inevitable second?

How quickly things change. Suddenly, Nutter decided to stop playing, as if all this time he'd been politicking with his left hand. Now he's telling us, “I know something that you don't know—I am not left-handed.”

Over the last month, the mayor has effectively squashed the notion that anyone could mount a viable primary challenge against him. First, he defeated the Bill Green/ Maria Quinones-Sanchez business-tax-reform bill that was kicked around City Council all fall. Green has long been a hypothetical, will-he-or-won't-he challenger to Nutter, and if the bill had gone through over the mayor's objections, Green could have argued that he has a stronger, more coherent economic vision for the city than Nutter. Instead, Nutter and his allies killed the bill, at the same time putting to rest any hope Green might have had in defeating him in the political arena.

Next, the endorsements started rolling in. First it was Philly's congress members—Reps. Allison Schwartz, Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady all gave their support to Nutter at the end of December. Then, just as rumors were heating up that state Sen. Anthony Williams might enter the mayoral race, District Attorney Seth Williams and City Controller Alan Butkovitz both jumped into Nutter's camp, and the campaign promises more endorsements soon to come.

Were the Butkovitz and Seth Williams endorsements timed to ward off an Anthony Williams entrance into the race? “It is a campaign, so in a sense it is a contest,” Nutter Campaign Manager Sheila Simmons says. However, she adds,  “I don't want to interpret how others may or may not view it.”
Observers say that the endorsements are indeed used to send a message to any potential opposition. The idea is to show Nutter in a position of strength, says former city councilman and current editor of the Public Record Jimmy Tayoun. “Endorsements this early tell you mayor has no opposition,” Tayoun explains. “For those in the know, it's already a foregone conclusion. Nobody's gonna beat him! It's impossible. I can't think of a single solitary soul.”

Viewed in that light, the endorsements become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—when pols see no opposition to the mayor, they are eager to join up with him, which in turn discourages potential challengers who might be still weighing a run. Another former councilman, Dan McElhatton, agrees on the symbolism of the endorsements. “They see [Nutter] is not likely to have opposition, so no harm no foul,” he says—why not endorse the mayor for some good-will and a free publicity hit? In a curious twist, McElhatton learned first-hand that endorsements by themselves don't always sway voters' minds when in 2009 he ran for DA and Nutter made robo-calls on his behalf—yet Seth Williams won the race anyway. That brings up another lesson—Nutter is viewed as so strong this cycle that Williams has come back to his camp even after the snub.

“It's not easy to be against the mayor,” says former Controller candidate and current Nutter gadfly Brett Mandell. “Nutter endorsed McElhatton against Williams, do you think Williams wanted to endorse him?" But it would do little good for Williams to refuse his support to a mayor projected to win in a cakewalk, and there might be some benefits to the endorser—"He might say, 'Hey Nutter, I want you to remember this when you’re doing your budget next year,'” Mandell suggests.

That's not to say any explicit agreements are in place. “I’m sure there are discussions about what each political actor is looking for,” Mandell says, “but in general endorsements are much more about relationship building than horse trading.”

Short term, there's another way (besides budgets) Nutter can pay back the favor—he could endorse Butkovitz and Seth Williams if they run for their current positions again in two years. On the other hand, they are also both seen as potential mayoral candidates in 2015, which could make things awkward if he picks one over the other—or even throws everyone for a loop and endorses Anthony Williams instead, should he choose to run.

As for the congressmembers, it's not a bad idea to be seen with Nutter these days. Despite some local image problems, he's starting to build a national profile, with a news-making attempt to create the nation's first sugary beverage tax last spring, a role as second vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and an appearance on Meet the Press in November to talk about national politics (and Michael Vick).

Finally, the man is rich, politically speaking. As of 2009, Nutter's team had $1.3 million on hand. They declined to disclose what the current amount is, though public filing will come at the end of January. "The way the economy is, and the way political landscape is, it's so hard to run and defeat an incumbent," McElhatton says. "No opposition can raise the money in the primary." Philly election laws limit donations to $2,600 by individuals or $10,600 by groups, although potential independent Tom Knox could spend his personal millions. Nutter's cash advantage not only scares off challengers but means the Nutter fund is likely to have a fair amount of dollars to throw around to his allies once they come up for reelection themselves. With all that at stake, endorsement seems like a no-brainer.

Still, critics are uncomfortable with the idea that the mayor can just waltz back to re-election unopposed. “The consequences are we don’t have any vibrant discussion about the leadership of the city, don’t have competing ideas about how the city should be run,” Mandell says. “Mayor Nutter maybe deserves re-election, maybe not, but he doesn’t deserve a free ride. He deserves a public discussion about whether he was able to deliver what he promised to deliver.”

Simmons shrugs off the criticism. “There are opportunities for people to take a look at and comment on the mayor's record,” she says. “I think we are going to work to promote his accomplishments and to line up votes of confidence whether we have someone in the primary or not.”
Even so, promotion without debate feels hollow. "It's not some impassioned plea to voters to continue his service, it’s a campaign for unanimity, so no one is willing to challenge him," a frustrated Mandell continues. "The story is Nutter is doing everything he possibly can to avoid having a discussion about whether he is successful as mayor."

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