In February, the Republican presidential primary was still very much alive. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all vying for the top spot—and knocking President Obama every step of the way. So the president’s campaign, still mired in a slumping economy, did what anyone would do: They called in the cavalry. Suddenly, clots of political supporters appeared in city halls, community centers and campaign offices in all 50 states with a clear message: If you attack the president with verbal smears, we will be there to set the record straight.
Locally, the president had the city’s top dog in his corner, and an eager one at that.
“We’re here today,” Mayor Nutter said from the second floor of City Hall, “to make sure people know the truth about what the president has done while in office and to respond to and anticipate the Republican attacks. Unfortunately, we’ve seen these attacks already and know they’ll be coming soon to Pennsylvania.”
With that, Nutter and several Philly politicians (including District Attorney Seth Williams and Controller Alan Butkovitz) announced the local arm of Obama’s “Truth Team”—a political force out to stop the so-called lies and smears against the president. “Mitt Romney has already proven,” the mayor said, “that he will literally say anything to distort the president’s record, and his own.”
Less than two months later, Romney was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. And Nutter was leading the charge against him—starting with a campaign call in April. Romney “doesn’t believe” in millionaires paying their fair share, Nutter told the press. Regarding Romney’s refusal to release 10 years of tax returns: “It begs the question,” Nutter said, “What is Mr. Romney hiding?”
That was the beginning of the onslaught of invective Nutter would relentlessly hurl at Romney and the national GOP as campaign season heated up. In press calls, at live appearances and on television, Nutter would go on to call Romney greedy, seductive, a bad governor, deportation-happy, a teary-eyed child—even “a joke.”
His skillful attacks and campaign messaging have made him one of the president’s most reliable surrogates in the 2012 race. And since then, unlike several of his Democratic colleagues throughout the country, he’s remained consistent in these attacks on the former Massachusetts governor; he’s never relented, never been hesitant to repeat Obama talking points on the stump and on national television.
All of which has led many in our city to ask the question: Could there be a more opportunistic motivation behind Nutter’s presidential punditry? Some imaginative Philly media think so—as they tend to whenever one of our fancier politicians cozies up to a president. Maybe, they’ve said, Nutter’s campaigning for Obama because he wants a job in Washington.
Maybe. But even for political calculations, that’s a bit simplistic.
Here’s the more complicated reality: The Obama era has changed the way cities interact with the federal government—partly because of Obama’s policies, partly because of the blowback to his polarizing presidency. And while Nutter’s national grandstanding might seem as though he’s neglecting Philly, it might actually be one of those most valuable political assets our city’s got.
The extent to how involved the Nutter-Obama relationship really is begins with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That bill, signed during Obama’s first month in office, intended to use the $787 billion authorized by Congress for a myriad of projects, including education, infrastructure and providing a short-term halt to the free falling economy.
But little reported by the national media was the new environment of inter-municipal competition created by ARRA’s rules, which have made getting money from the federal government harder. It began with $100 billion of stimulus money that went into education. While most of the funds were meant to keep schools—and their employees—above water, $5.3 billion of it was tied up in grants for which cities needed to apply, and compete.
Most notable was the Race to the Top program, which handed out education money based on point-based criteria such as improved teacher performance, computerization and other projects. Between 2009 and 2011, Pennsylvania received $41 million in Race to the Top grants—and earlier this month, the Philadelphia School District was one of 892 school districts around the country competing for a combined $400 million in new grants.
While the school funds are perhaps the most well-known of the competitive grants, the Obama administration has made this process standard. And it’s served Philadelphia in ways the old method of doing things via formula grants—noncompetitive awards based on predetermined formulas, like population, poverty rate, etc.—probably couldn’t. Especially with the way federal cash dried up after the stimulus.
Time magazine senior correspondent Michael Grunwald, who wrote a book about the stimulus package titled The New New Deal, calls this Obama’s “quiet bureaucratic revolution.”
“The quiet races to the top in everything from transportation to energy innovation to lead-paint removal programs [are] really starting to change the way Washington spends money,” he tells PW. “Instead of spreading money around the country like peanut butter to anyone who checked all the required boxes for their project, the stimulus asked revolutionary questions like: Does your project make any sense? The idea that a project needed to be shovel-worthy as well as shovel-ready—and that bureaucrats would have to make subjective judgments about economic and environmental benefits rather than serve as compliance officers—is a new thing.”
The most recent Philly competitive grant success story came toward the beginning of the summer, when the city got $3.125 million from the federal government to train police officers, via a COPS grant. The COPS program has awarded more than $12 billion to local police forces since 1995; it funds a portion of the salary and benefits for officer and deputy hires for three years. Of the 226 local U.S. law enforcement agencies competing for a slice of the $111 million up for grabs in 2012, Philly, along with Chicago and L.A., received the most officers: 25.
The money didn’t come easy; in fact, the city had been turned down for the same grant just a year earlier, and hadn’t gotten such funds since 2009. And in light of last summer’s flash mobs and the uptick in the city’s murder rate through 2012, the city government—specifically, Nutter’s new federal affairs director, former Redevelopment Authority head Terry Gillen—needed to come up with an outside-the-box plan for some cash.
“People think you pick up a phone and make a phone call and they send you a bundle of cash,” says Gillen, “and it’s really not that way.”
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