Can Michael Nutter be beat?

by pkerkstra on February 16, 2011

According to a poll released last week, a majority of Philadelphians say Michael Nutter doesn’t deserve a second term. Given his first three years in office, who can blame them? Services have been slashed. Taxes have been increased. City unemployment is sky-high.

It’s reasonable to argue that the economy is to blame for most of that, not Nutter. But voters aren’t always reasonable. It would be a challenge to knock him off, but in theory at least, Nutter is vulnerable, particularly if challenged by a candidate who could appeal strongly to black voters.

And yet, there doesn’t look to be a single Democrat willing to challenge the mayor in this May’s Democratic primary, with the comical exception of Milton Street.

What gives?

The easy answer is that it’s tradition. The last incumbent Democratic mayor to lose a re-election bid in Philadelphia was Richard Vaux in 1858. The last sitting mayor to face a serious primary challenge was Wilson Goode Sr., who handily defeated Ed Rendell (and later, Frank Rizzo) in 1987. And that was after MOVE. Wannabe mayors in Philadelphia just don’t see the percentage in taking on incumbents and are generally content to wait for an open year.

But there’s more to it than that.

There’s a real shortage of viable mayoral candidates. Nobody out there right now seems to have the necessary mix of talent, experience, profile and gumption to take Nutter out. The window has closed for a lot of the old guard, like Bob Brady, Dwight Evans, or veteran council members like Jim Kenney or Marian Tasco. They’ve been out there too long, or have already been rejected too many times, to have a real shot at catching fire in a race against an incumbent. Fresher faces — like Councilman Bill Green, D.A. Seth Williams, Controller Alan Butkovitz, and State Rep. Cherelle Parker — could use more seasoning.

Still, Green — who is as impatient as they come — might have taken a shot were it not for Philly good government laws that have the unintended effect of helping out incumbents. With individual campaign contributions in the city capped at $2,500, and PAC gifts limited to $10,000, raising money in a hurry is a challenge. Nutter, knowing he would seek re-election, was able to get his biggest supporters to max out their contributions to him each of the past three years, helping him build a $1.25 million warchest.

“Basically the campaign finance limits prevent somebody from playing catchup to to a guy with more than a million in the bank,” says Green, who ended the year with just $200,000.

To make matters worse for Green, city law requires that Philadelphia office-holders seeking another elected position resign their old jobs first. So Green would have to give up his council seat for what would likely have been a losing bid against Nutter. Zack Stalberg at the Committee of 70 thinks too much is made of the campaign finance caps, but he agrees that the resign-to-run rule “makes elections less competitive.”

Of course, another way to look at it is that Green, Sam Katz, Anthony Williams and all the others who have hinted they could do a better job than Nutter are political cowards. After all, Nutter resigned his council seat to run for mayor in 2007, back when nobody but Nutter and maybe Olivia thought he had a chance in hell of winning.

As recently as December, I thought Green would run. He definitely wanted to. But between now and then he figured it would be too hard to raise the cash to compete and too difficult to craft a campaign message that could effectively damage Nutter.

“He’s been a competent caretaker. That’s not what we expected, from him, we expected more. But nothing horrible has happened in the city,” says Green.

Nutter is also a tireless and effective campaigner. Nobody knows city government better, and few Philly politicians can match his intellect. The mayor has also tended to his vulnerable flanks in recent months by working on his relations with key constituencies and interest groups, like the Black Clergy of Philadelphia. For all the troubles of the past three years, Nutter remains a formidable candidate.

But look, knocking off an incumbent mayor is hard anywhere. Big city mayors all over the country cruise to easy re-elections all the time. There are cities, though, where primary challenges are serious, and in a handful of cases they’re successful. For instance last year, former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty — a guy who has more in common with Nutter than the mayor might like to admit — lost his primary to D.C.’s council president.

Barring some major surprise, Philadelphians won’t get a competitive primary this year. And depending on what Tom Knox ultimately does this fall, the city might not get a competitive general election either. That would mean a missed opportunity to wrestle with the city’s problems, a lost chance to debate its future.

Worse, without a competitive campaign there’s no reason for Nutter to take stock of how he’s doing and retool. A competitive race would give Nutter a chance to reconnect with voters, and clarify his murky agenda for the next four years. There are Nutter staffers who are itching for another campaign. They think Nutter would wipe the floor with Green, Williams, Katz or any other of the would-be candidates.

The trouble is, they’re almost certainly right, and the would-be contenders know it.

(This item originally appeared on PhillyPost)

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