Will Nutter Lose His Bread & Butter?

How will the mayor boost his image now that the BRT saga is over?

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted May. 18, 2010

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If early prognostications were correct, the Board of Revision of Taxes was voted out of existence in yesterday’s primary election, joining Ron White, Ira Einhorn and Adam Eaton in Philadelphia’s historical purgatory. The BRT, exposed by the Inquirer as inept, unjust, and possibly corrupt, was likely snuffed by a ballot question, the only mourners being the ousted board members themselves. They’ll be hard-pressed to find part-time jobs that pay $75,000 a year, full benefits included.

It’s a rare public expulsion of the greasy Old Way, and for city residents, it couldn’t come at a better time. At a moment when property-tax increases are being floated by City Council, the fairness and uniformity of future reassessments becomes that much more important. Receiving notification of a tax hike is never welcome—I say this from experience—but if it does come, it should at least be sent by a group more reputable than Cobra Command.

Like his constituents, Mayor Michael Nutter has eagerly anticipated the BRT’s demise. In recent weeks, he has talked about the agency as if it were a foaming killer, calling it a “rogue board” that “must be brought under control.” In April, he termed the agency’s assessment system “garbage” and “a disaster,” adding that he had “an extreme amount of concern about the credibility of the current numbers and process.” Then he slashed their pay.

For Nutter, such fieriness was unusual, if not wholly out of character. In almost every situation, whether discussing crime, revenue or Mummers, he maintains a Ben Stein-like evenness, concerned yet unruffled. But here he was last month, sounding off like Bobby Knight. Where did this feisty new Nutter come from?

That Nutter, I believe, came from an understanding that in hammering away at the BRT, he had a sure political winner. Need to look tough in front of a camera to convey a sense of strength? What better foil than the BRT—an entity roughly as reviled in Philadelphia as Comcast and the Cowboys? At a time when Nutter’s support was stagnant, his milquetoast image hardening, the board offered itself up as an easily condemnable villain.

Following Tuesday’s vote, however, that surefire anger-op has vanished, leaving our Adam West Batman with no clumsy Penguin to pummel. While the BRT’s abolishment is a plus for city residents, it strikes me as a bit of a loser for Nutter. While he may now claim victory over the dastardly evildoers, in truth he never got his hands dirty: The Inquirer did most of the work with its 2009 investigation, uncovering the board’s every flaw, weakening it to near-nothingness. All the mayor had to do was give the stumbling crook a finishing shove.

But now that the BRT has been dragged away, Nutter has lost a useful publicity tool.

As mayor, his glower has never been convincing, a fact made evident during strike negotiations with SEPTA last November. As with the BRT, he publicly challenged union head Willie Brown—yet in this case, Nutter wound up looking ridiculous: Brown got off his “Little Caesar” line, Bob Brady rushed in to put things right and the mayor sidled out, lessened by the episode.

What was different? Unlike the BRT, SEPTA had an argument to make. And unlike any of the board’s members—who mostly lowered their heads as the executioner neared—Brown was spoiling for a fight. By April, Nutter had learned that those fights are more winnable when your opponent’s hands are tied.

So what can he now swing at with similar impunity? The pickings are slim: While the city is plagued by crime and inefficiency, casino drama and the Philadelphia Parking Authority, nothing carries the mix of media revelation and public distaste of the BRT affair—and it’s unlikely that Nutter will soon find such a patsy.

Meanwhile, the fire already seems to have left him: In a letter to the Inquirer last week, he responded to accusations that he was “‘missing from the debate’ regarding various ethics and campaign finance bills”:

“Perhaps you missed the testimony of my chief of staff, who voiced my administration’s vehement opposition to a Council proposal that would give it ... the power to set rules governing political activity of city employees.”

Yes, Nutter’s opposition to Council’s proposal was so “vehement” that we all really did miss it—a far cry from the outraged sound bites he spat at the BRT. While he may have genuinely wanted to be rid of the board, he’ll miss the easy anger it provided.

It’s like my mother always said: Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.

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1. Dennis said... on May 19, 2010 at 07:17AM

“Huh?”

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