Butler estimates that he and the mayor work 15- or 16-hour days on average. Weekends, too. Nutter says he sleeps about four hours per night—“I’m used to it,” he says—and more amazingly, hasn’t touched a drop of coffee since he was in college.
After a quick two-minute walk from the Municipal Building to City Hall, Nutter and his entourage climb the expansive stairway that winds around the diameter of the entrance hall. The mayor’s office is on the second floor, so they don’t have far to go. On arrival, Nutter disappears into his inner chambers to deal with a private matter before a press conference for the Police Athletic League in the Mayor’s Reception Room around the corner.
The PAL thing is no big deal—just high-school kids getting paired with various city officials for the day. Once it kicks off just after its scheduled 11 a.m. start time, the mayor poses with all 26 kids and their adopted officials, though the needs of the day weigh ever heavier with each passing minute.
Meanwhile, members of the press have started circling in like vultures, not for the kids but because there’s been big news about the city’s beleaguered Housing Authority and they want the mayor’s comment. The Federal Housing Administration, citing financial and managerial irregularities, asked the PHA board, chaired by Nutter’s arch-nemesis former Mayor John Street, to resign over the weekend, but they refused. Press Secretary Mark McDonald warns the gathering reporters that the mayor needs to take a phone call immediately following the PAL event, but he will appear afterward to answer questions. By 11:15, the photo session finally ends and Nutter heads back to his office while the media position themselves outside, chatting about microphone design while they wait.
Councilman Curtis Jones walks by with his PAL shadow and laughs at the mass of reporters. “What I learned my first day on the job, you can’t hide from the media,” he tells the kid.
After five or 10 minutes, Nutter emerges to address the housing situation. “The events of the weekend are slightly confusing,” Nutter tells the press. “I have no details.”
“This is an issue, if not a battle, between [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] and the board,” Nutter says while reporters try to goad him into calling for the board’s resignation. There’s an unspoken feeling that the mayor doesn’t want to get drawn into a public pissing match with Street, who has thrown a few choice barbs in Nutter’s direction, most notably saying he was “not a black mayor.”
After five minutes of coming up with different ways to say “no comment,” Nutter backs away into his office. McDonald brusquely tells the reporters “Thank you, guys,” while creating a barrier with his body between them and the retreating mayor.
Later, Nutter says he tries to take in stride all the unplanned distractions and delays that inevitably come up throughout the day, throwing him off the schedule laid out in Butler’s thick blue binder. “You have to accept in this job that there’s never enough time for almost anything. Time is not your friend,” he says. “Because of the events of the day we have to move some things around, but it’s what you do.”
Nutter's vision for the city doesn’t necessarily resonate with the public, with a recent poll showing that 53 percent say the city is headed in the wrong direction. Critics have ripped him for being too timid, cutting too much from the budget, not cutting enough, not paying enough attention to black neighborhoods and for failing to articulate a grand vision for the city, among other things.
Former Councilman Juan Ramos evokes a common perception when asked about his impressions on the mayor’s effectiveness. “He’s taking care of the people of Philadelphia to the best of his ability. He’s done good for the times that we’re in,” Ramos says. Positive, yet lukewarm.
Some of the mayor’s confidants make the case that the naysayers are missing the forest for the trees. “The day-to-day news of government doesn’t lend itself to sustained interest in big-picture projects,” says former state Rep. Dick Hayden, whose 194th District overlapped with Nutter’s Council district for a few years in the early 1990s. “The next news cycle moves on to something different.”
“We’ve hit a stabilization point well ahead of other local governments,” Hayden says. “If you get there earlier, does that put you in a better position to thrive? My answer is yeah.” Hayden points out that planned development at the airport, the Delaware riverfront, North Broad and East Market streets will not only be a boon to the local economy, but should create jobs that don’t require a whole lot of education—employment for the great undereducated mass of city residents.
“I put it in the legacy category,” Hayden says. “Get it done, get it done right, and get 20, 30, 40 year value out of those decisions.”
In small groups, the mayor tends to be well-received. At a surprise visit to a Spruce Hill civic meeting in University City last month, he startles some members who don’t realize that Nutter is in the house until he’s actually standing next to them, shaking their hand. “What are we doing wrong?” asks civic Director Barry Grosbach in mock concern when he spots the mayor.
Giving the group a sneak preview of his financial plan, Nutter frequently moves his hands in and out of his pockets, touching his nose or goatee as he speaks. As he answers questions—people seem less than concerned about the budget, instead asking about the Housing Authority and the Board of Revision of Taxes—his speech is peppered with “umms” as he searches for the right word. When he gets to well-tread subjects like the DROP retirement benefit, it’s easy to tell he’s switched to his talking points, the practiced words coming out smoother and more polished: “DROP is too expensive, we can’t afford it, the citizens don’t want it, and it has to go. It’s time to drop DROP.”
On a question about gun use in the city, he relishes a choice shot at the NRA: “The whole gun situation is just insane,” he fumes. “The proudest day in office was my 100th day when I was sued by the NRA. It feels great. They are out of their minds.”
Two nights later, he sits down with the neighbors for a similar budget discussion at the Southwest Philly house of Helen Divers, a retired schoolteacher and community activist. After everyone holds hands for a prayer circle in which the pastor prays for the mayor, “help him to remember he has more friends than enemies,” Nutter sits straddled between the dining and living room, both filled with people. Once again, he explains the budget situation. “You can’t always do what you want to do, but you do what you have to do,” he tells his audience. Like at Spruce Hill, they take the opportunity to ask the mayor about other things, like youth programming and abandoned cars in the neighborhood. “It’s like high school here,” Nutter says to a question about political machinations in the Sheriff’s Office. “We’re trying to run a government.”
Closing the meeting, the pastor prays for thanks that Philadelphia isn’t undergoing a Middle Eastern-style revolution. “I do plan on being buried in Philadelphia,” Nutter says in response. “I just don’t plan on doing it anytime soon.”
Divers says she’s known the mayor nearly 30 years, and is pleased to open her home to him for the yearly budget chat. “Some folks move up the ladder and forget about the little folks, but he didn’t forget about me.”
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 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino