Sau Paulo on the Schuylkill

by pkerkstra on January 4, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 3, 2012.

Four years ago, when Michael Nutter was first sworn in as mayor, Philadelphia was awash in irrational exuberance, and it was Nutter who had opened the floodgates.

Remember the thousands who encircled City Hall just to shake the man’s hand? Or the preposterously ambitious goals Nutter outlined in his buoyant inaugural address? Double the college graduation rate! Halve K-12 dropouts! Cut homicides by 30 percent to 50 percent! “It’s a new day,” he said, too many times to count.

Monday, in his second inaugural address, Nutter did his best to take back those promises, set them on fire, and throw the ashes into an unusually strong easterly wind. This time, there was no hint of the near-giddy optimism that characterized his administration’s early days in office.

Four years ago, Nutter told us Philadelphia was “on the brink of greatness” and entering a “renaissance period” whose beginning happened to coincide precisely with his election as mayor.

On Monday, Nutter warned that the city was increasingly riven between the haves and have-nots, a kind of Sao Paulo on the Schuylkill, with failing schools, legions of ex-felons, and a violence-prone population of undereducated teens. These tenacious problems, Nutter said, “hold us back as a city, they stretch the fabric of our society to a breaking point.”

Happy New Year!

The only similarity between the two inaugurals was the moment early in both addresses where Nutter choked up and grew teary. One wonders if he was crying for an entirely different reason this time around.

As an exercise in expectation-lowering, the address did its job. But it probably wasn’t necessary, not after the experience of the last four years. Whether it was Nutter’s own shortcomings or the wretched economy (a ready excuse that Nutter didn’t once mention in Monday’s address), his first term has to be considered a disappointment.

That’s not because Nutter’s been a bad mayor. He hasn’t. But rather because most of us expected a lot more, in part because Nutter told us to at his first inaugural.

Even back then, some sensed the trouble ahead. “He seems to be relying a lot on his ability to motivate people who don’t have to do what he says,” Joseph P. McLaughlin, a professor of political science at Temple University, said at the time. “Mayors aren’t emperors. They don’t control everything.”

Nutter turned out to have no control at all over the 17 members of City Council. And while it’s possible he could turn that around this year (there are six new Council members), it smacks of the blinkered optimism of 2008 to assume he will.

So what can Nutter realistically deliver in his second term, without Council’s help? Plenty, actually. Another four years of serious internal corruption watchdogging could be enough to improve City Hall’s ethical environment for the long term. And while there has been some improvement in the operation and management of several departments, not even the most ardent Nutter fan would argue that city service delivery is what it should be.

If he’s feeling really ambitious, Nutter could even hammer out contracts with the city’s blue- and white-collar unions, perhaps chipping away a bit at the city’s pension funding crisis. If that’s on his agenda, though, he didn’t mention it.

What Nutter did talk about at length was education, which is a little unusual for a Philadelphia mayor. Most have stayed as far away from the underperforming School District as they can, correctly seeing it as a behemoth problem that can’t easily be fixed.

But Nutter might be tempted to try to stabilize the district, if his engagement last year is any indication. For one thing, we already know from Nutter’s orchestration in the summer of Arlene Ackerman’s ouster that he can in fact steer important district decisions, despite his frequent reminders to the press that he does not have formal control over the School Reform Commission.

Nutter can do some serious education work without getting Council’s permission first. He will surely have a huge say in who is selected as the district’s next superintendent, and I seriously doubt he will be as hands-off with his new SRC appointees as he was with the old ones.

Ultimately, though, what the district may need most from the mayor is money: a stable, locally funded stream to help offset declines in state and federal support. And to get that, he’ll have to go through Council. No wonder Nutter looked so grim Monday. Soda tax, anyone?

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