It’s 10 past three, and Mayor Nutter is running late. He’s due to speak at the Community College of Philadelphia at 3:15 p.m., but he’s just rushing out of a book signing at City Hall, downstairs to the SUV waiting for him on the building’s concrete apron. It’s a typical busy Monday, the start of a manic week that culminates with his budget address to City Council on Thursday.
Climbing in the black Hybrid Tahoe with his driver, a security guard and a press aid, Nutter takes the passenger seat and produces an iPod from somewhere. Fiddling with the controls, he plugs it into the dash, bumping the 2008 hit “Closer” by R&B singer Ne-Yo (the “Can’t Stop” remix). Wearing a black suit and purple tie, with his standard city of Philadelphia lapel pin and cufflinks, the mayor fields some BlackBerry messages as the Tahoe pulls onto Broad Street.
Afternoon traffic is crawling. Though CCP is less than a mile away, congestion drags out the trip. While the mild electronic beat pumps out of the car’s speakers, Nutter takes the opportunity to describe his vision for the future of Philadelphia.
“We’re still focused on the main issues that make cities great: A safer city, a smarter city and a more sustainable city. One with integrity and transparency,” he says, hitting his four big talking points. “Those things don’t stop. We can’t lose focus on those big items.”
“Education is the key to the future of this city,” he continues. “We support higher education as well, because of jobs, the research dollars that come.”
Nutter’s rhetoric hits on the expansion and new jobs at the Navy Yard, planned waterfront development on the Delaware River, gains in the hospitality industry plus progress in recycling and other environmental initiatives through the city’s Greenworks program. “Continuing reforms in the government,” he says. “Institutionalized culture of integrity. People want to do business with a government they know has integrity.”
And then there are the numbers, which he can recite easily: Since he’s been in office, the city claims improved test scores in schools with 10 percent more students graduating from high school, plus a 28 percent increase in residents with a college degree. Violent crime has gone down 13 percent, and murders 22 percent. More than 100 city workers have been fired for corruption or dereliction of duty.
But plenty of obstacles remain as stubborn impediments to a smarter, safer city. Watchdogs point out that among the 10 largest cities in the country, Philadelphia has the second highest unemployment rate (currently around 10.7 percent), is the third poorest and has the highest violent crime rate. Twenty-five percent of the city lives in poverty. Half a million adults are barely literate, and 40 percent of high school students never graduate.
But as we begin to poke our heads out of two and a half years of recessionary rubble, the city’s outlook is starting to look brighter. Finances are ever so tenuously stabilized. The government is cautiously making noise about investment instead of taxes and cuts. Threats still remain, but Nutter, odds-on favorite to win election to a second term this year, implores you to have faith that Philadelphia is back on track.
Earlier in the day, the first event of the mayor’s Monday is an informal forum appropriately called “Winning the Future” with Michael Blake from the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. The event, attended by a number of local government higher-ups and local business leaders, is supposed to start at 8:30 a.m. at the Municipal Services Building, the home of feared city departments like Revenue and Licenses & Inspections. The mayor’s SUV pulls up to the building that looms just northwest of City Hall only a few minutes late. He strolls into the lobby, shaking a few hands along the way before riding the elevator up to the 14th floor.
Outside the nondescript room where the conference is being held, Nutter chats with Blake for a few minutes, annoyed with congressional bickering over budget cuts that nearly shut down the federal government. “Even talking about it is a sign of dysfunction,” Nutter says. “If we were having that discussion here, people would be going crazy.”
The mayor shakes more hands upon entering the room. He must shake hundreds over the course of the day. When the forum begins, the talk is positive as Blake and Nutter take turns praising each other to the assembled crowd. “If more [mayors] could be like Nutter we’d be able to do a lot more things,” Blake says.
“He must not read the Philly papers,” Nutter says, straight-faced but drawing a laugh. He’s usually good for a dry joke every few minutes at informal occasions.
Blake is here to speak about the State Small Business Credit Initiative, a $1.5 billion federal program designed to encourage up to $15 billion in lending by local institutions across the country. The feds are counting on their local partners to get the word out about the loans to their communities. “Now we need to create more concrete game plans with you all on the ground,” Blake says.
We sure could use the jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, local employment is at 654,900, up from last year but still well below the 695,900 jobs the city boasted in 2000, even though population is expected to have increased by 50,000 or so in that time.
Eventually, the Win the Future conversation lets out with promises of collaboration but no concrete conclusions. After a whole other round of handshakes, the mayor takes a crowded elevator downstairs and walks across JFK Boulevard back to City Hall, accompanied by Luke Butler, his right-hand man. The 27 year-old Great Britain native came to Philadelphia in 2006 to study at Penn and immediately signed up to volunteer on Nutter’s campaign. “I was looking to get involved,” Butler says. “I was reading about this guy Michael Nutter who had this record of pushing for ethics reform.”
While earning his master’s in public administration, Butler stuck with Nutter after the election and worked his way up from the press office to become “special assistant to the mayor.”
“He was just standing outside the door one day,” Nutter quips.
Short, with red hair and a red beard, Butler carries the thick blue binder that contains all the briefing and scheduling information for the mayor’s day. It’s a flexible document, one that’s frequently out of date by 10 a.m. as events run long and things come up, forcing the team to rearrange the day’s happening. Observers of the mayor might note that he is almost always late to events by 15, 20 minutes or more. “Not bad for an elected official,” Butler says.
PW fanned out into the neighborhoods to find out people’s feelings on the mayor in general, as well as on specific issues. Here’s what you had to say.
How could this be? As councilman, Nutter was instrumental in creating the law to extend benefits to domestic partners of city employees. Once mayor, he hired a director of LGBT affairs, and even raised a rainbow flag outside City Hall for Gay History Month last October.
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."
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4