In January 2012, representatives from the Department of Justice made an appearance at the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington. They were there specifically to talk about upcoming COPS grants. Gillen had set up an appointment with the representatives; after her initial meeting, Nutter—then the conference’s vice president—was brought in to discuss why COPS’ maximum funding should be raised from 10 to 25 police officers, which is how many Philly wanted. He argued that there needed to be a “carve-out for large cities” who need more police and whom it costs more to train police.
“They didn’t give us any feedback either way, but said they would think about it,” says Gillen. Six months later, Philadelphia received funds for 25 police officers, who were to be either veterans who served in the military after 9/11, or re-hires, as was COPS’ 2012 standard.
What’s notable about Philadelphia receiving the most funds is that, according to the federal government’s assessment of our needs, we weren’t at the top of their list.
Luckily, Nutter has a friend in Washington. And was able to make his pitch straight to the feds.
“Part of the success here is that Mayor Nutter is known by the Obama administration,” says Gillen. “They know he’s good. They like him. They probably would like to be as helpful as possible—I can’t prove any of this, but … I do think the mayor’s relationship with the Obama administration has helped us to get them to consider proposals and ideas that they might not otherwise consider.”
Those proposals and projects have included new green investments throughout the city. The 2010 TIGER Grant, for example, handed out $23 million in transportation funds for bike lanes in Philadelphia and Camden. It’s part of a system that will eventually connect trails throughout the Delaware Valley and South Jersey.
The TIGER Grant, author Grunwald says, “is the perfect example of a project that wouldn’t have fit into one of the boxes. It doesn’t fit into the highway program, or the transit program or the safety program. So whether or not a project like that got funded would have, in the past, been completely dependent on whether your local congressman has sway over the Appropriations Committee or the Transportation Committee.”
With Obama’s new rules, it’s not just about checking boxes; you’ve gotta make your case. “The big change in the Obama administration is that the quality of your work has to be really, really good,” Gillen adds. “There is a lot more competition, but it’s competition with guidance … A lot of people argue that in the Bush administration, there was a lot of competition with No Child Left Behind. But they’re forgetting that with failing schools, if you got a failing grade, nobody helped you get past failure. So what they’re trying to say is that, ‘You didn’t quite cut it here; but here’s what you can do different, and we’re going to help you do that.’”
That’s why Nutter put Gillen in charge of directly communicating with the federal government. She started Nov. 3, 2010, the day after the midterm elections—which were especially bad for Democrats both in the federal government and in Pennsylvania. She joked at the time: “The job got harder in the last 24 hours, so I’m a little nervous about it.” Even today, she notes the House going from a large Democrat majority to a large Republican majority has “been a big problem” for the city.
Securing funding for local projects became even harder in April 2011, when Obama and Congress eliminated earmarks as part of a deal to avoid a government shutdown. Sending federal money to individual districts would no longer be approved by Congress in one massive back-pat of a spending vote. It’d have to come from local politicians working together—and it’d have to be approved by the president’s administration.
By that point, though, Nutter had already seen the writing on the wall. In October 2010, he and then-Gov. Ed Rendell took to D.C. to ask for money—specifically, for infrastructure funds. Closing I-95 for three days in 2008 due to a crack cost $60 million in lost productivity, Nutter told the feds. He also asked for a $5 billion expansion of Philadelphia International Airport and a $30 million upgrade to SEPTA’s fare system, which we didn’t get. And any projects thereafter would be difficult with the new Republican leadership. When the president introduced the Rebuild America Jobs Act in November 2011, it was immediately denounced as a “second stimulus” by Republican politicians like Sen. Pat Toomey.
Nutter, not surprisingly, saw it differently. He held a press conference on top of the 40th Street Bridge “to advocate for sustained infrastructure investment by the federal government.” The jobs bill, it was estimated, would have put an estimated 5,307 people to work on bridge, highway and other infrastructure projects in Philadelphia. “[Obama] has proposed the most comprehensive plan to put Americans back to work in at least 30 years,” Nutter said.
The bill never even made it to the Senate. It did, however, help fuel Nutter’s nationwide blitz to talk up the president.
“At a time when voters loathe Washington, they may be more receptive to voices coming from closer to home,” wrote Politico reporter Alexander Burns on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. “As Obama defends his economic record, it’s his party’s mayors who can speak most directly to the impact of policies such as the Recovery Act.”
Luckily, Obama has a friend in Philadelphia—one prepared to take the president’s pitch straight to the voters. Which is why Nutter made dozens of appearances on CNN and MSNBC this summer, and spoke on dozens of press calls with other mayors throughout the country. And he hated on Mitt Romney through it all.
“The guy is a joke,” Nutter said of Romney on July 12, appearing alongside Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “He’s not for real. He’s a character playing a role and virtually perpetrating a fraud on the American people.”
It’s these blistering attacks, and defenses of the Obama record, that have led to speculation—as seen in news reports from Newsworks, the Daily News and Philadelphia magazine—that Nutter would abandon Philadelphia for the White House come Obama’s second term. But all speculation involving Nutter’s move has been just that. The Obama campaign would not comment on the topic, and Nutter’s press secretary Mark McDonald, naturally, denies it categorically: “There are no such plans [for Mayor Nutter working in a second Obama term]. There is no expectation of that. The mayor is not thinking at all about that. What he’s thinking about is running the city of Philadelphia to the best of his ability [and] help President Obama win widespread support in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties and carry the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that’s about it.”
McDonald, a former Daily News staffer, likely remembers similar speculation from his days as a journalist. During President Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996, local media and political insiders believed the same thing about then-Mayor Ed Rendell. A Daily News article from 1996 notes a rumor that the former mayor would be offered a cabinet position in a second Clinton administration.
Then, as now, the rumor was denied by everyone except “Philadelphia’s political community.” Then, as now, Philadelphia’s mayor spoke at the Democratic National Convention. And locally, the media was obsessed with what the mayor thought of his own national image.
Here’s one important difference: The rumors surrounding Rendell came as he’d brought the city out of a fiscal crisis. Nutter’s largest success, thus far, has probably been the same as the president’s: coping with a slow recovery amidst a frustrated public. Which isn’t enough on which to base the rest of his career. It’s safe to say that if Nutter were to leave City Hall mid-term, his career in elected politics would be over.