Dark clouds surround the mayor and his administration, whose platform is "just getting by."
In 2008, Michael Nutter swept into the mayor’s office on a wave of optimism and a raft of big promises: he would clean up city government, mend public schools and work to lower taxes. He’d bring down crime rates and improve our air and water. Under him, Philadelphia would attract new business and retain its college graduates. Such assurances weren’t novel for a new mayor, but what was unique was a widespread sense that he actually might deliver.
Two years on, that optimism is gone, erased by fallen stocks and soured mortgages. In the political realm, “hope” has become an ironic pejorative. Since Nutter took office, city unemployment has nearly doubled, with budget gaps yawning wider each year. His days of bold pronouncements seem extraordinarily distant.
But if you look past the disappointment of the mayor’s early performance, you’ll find he’s acquitted himself fairly well. Public safety has indeed improved; City Hall no longer needs to be bugged. Bucking regional trends, the population continues to rise, and small but significant measures—weekly recycling, truancy-reduction plans, the 311 system—keep rolling out. And while his failures have been glaring—his support of Arlene Ackerman; his handling of library closures and Big Willie Brown; his recent losses to Council—it’s hard to see how much better Chaka Fattah or Tom Knox or Bob Brady would be doing at this point, with no cash to spend and ambitions on hold.
Even still, a dark cloud surrounds Nutter that cannot entirely be blamed on a shoddy economy. It’s a matter of Droopy Dog demeanor, but it’s also a matter of inaction. Case in point is the mayor’s lack of movement on the contracts of District Councils 33 and 47, which together represent 13,000 nonuniformed city workers. As recently reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, both pacts expired last June—yet in the months since, Nutter has made few attempts to negotiate. Though pension obligations and health-care costs eat a quarter of Philadelphia’s budget—placing the issue at the heart of his administration’s thorniest problem—the sides haven’t met since December.
This isn’t an outrage, exactly; on its own, it’s not even all that gripping. But the episode speaks to a larger problem of Nutter’s, one that threatens to define him: His tenure has been utterly amorphous, with little guiding principle beyond scraping enough nickels into the till. That’s vitally important, to be sure, but it’s not something for the rest of us to rally around. Knox and the others may not have fared any better than the man who beat them, but at the very least, they would have established a tone. In a January interview with WHYY, Phil Goldsmith, Street’s former managing director, said it well: “I still have an issue of what’s this administration’s agenda. What does it really stand for? It’s clear if you look at Rendell it was getting the city back fiscally strong and focusing on economic development. I think the last administration [Mayor John Street] was about neighborhood rejuvenation. I’m not sure what this administration’s signature cornerstone is about.”
The stalled union talks, however, point to a “signature cornerstone”: just getting by. Last Sunday, Nutter’s spokesman told the Inquirer that “we’re not going to enter into contractual agreements that pigeonhole the future success of this city.” That position would be more admirable were it not for a lack of contractual discussion since there was two feet of snow on the ground. When Team Nutter finally faces the unions, talks will likely be contentious; a Council 33 lawyer told the newspaper that his clients, unsurprisingly, won’t “agree to anything that takes back benefits the members have fought for over the years.”
Nutter must work out a deal that will benefit the city, but the prospect of wounds suffered in the scuffle—and perhaps memories of November’s botched SEPTA negotiations—will persuade him to procrastinate for as long as he can.
While “just getting by” has practically become our national motto over the past two years—just eking out the next car or house or college payment—we deserve a more salient message from our leaders. Nutter is smart and competent, and it’s been dispiriting to see him drifting around with the rest of us. Better days are a long way off, and we’ll need something stronger than wan resignation to get us through. Clearly, Nutter doesn’t have the taste for a Rendell-style union throwdown—but maybe he should work to acquire that taste. Because if he truly wants to wring savings from the unions and solidify Philadelphia’s future, he’ll need to first step into the ring. And then he’ll need to fight.
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