The best mayor Portland never had

by pkerkstra on June 24, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 23, 2012.

These are schizophrenic times for Mayor Nutter.

One day, he’s in Philadelphia, unable to stop City Council from taking a flamethrower to his signature 2012 plan, the property-tax reform known as Actual Value Initiative. The next, he’s in Orlando, basking in the applause of peers from across the country who elevated him to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Pilloried in Philly, then feted in Florida, all within 48 hours. The split between Nutter’s dual realities – one on the local stage, and the other played out nationally – is growing wider by the day.

Nationally, between his new post and his steady stream of television appearances as an Obama surrogate and spokesman for urban America, Nutter is becoming a Democratic star, a slightly lower-voltage version of his “frenemy,” Newark, N.J.’s Cory Booker.

Increasingly, the rest of the country seems to think Philadelphia doesn’t realize just how lucky it is to have Michael Nutter as mayor. Philadelphians are, after all, a famously ungrateful lot. So it’s not hard to understand why outsiders dismiss the hometown booing as the political equivalent of Phillies fans heckling Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

Outside Philadelphia, Nutter is rightly seen as one of the most environmentally progressive mayors in the country. He’s viewed as a champion of good urban planning and innovative public spaces. And he’s considered part of the leading edge of the antiobesity crusade.

These are all good causes to be associated with. Yet they are also the sort of priorities you’d expect of the mayor of Portland, Ore., a far less troubled city with more small-batch breweries than homicide victims. And what ails Portland is not remotely comparable to the daily travails of Philadelphia.

Unfortunately for Nutter (and the rest of us), Philadelphia is the poorest, most violent, least educated, and most heavily taxed of the 10 largest cities in America. Our problems are far bigger than high-calorie sodas or too few bike lanes. And, in certain local political circles at least, Nutter is seen as more attentive to issues that will win him national press and political attention, not the problems that really plague us.

Indeed, it can be hard to feel as fondly about Nutter as Vice President Biden does when the homicide rate is up 23 percent, the School District is imploding, and the administration’s proposed budget is exposed by City Council as a quarter-baked mess.

But it’s an absurd oversimplification to conclude that Nutter is loved outside the city limits and loathed within, or to argue that his growing stature nationally is somehow bad for the rest of us.

The latest poll – a Pew survey of Philadelphians released in February – found the mayor had a 60 percent approval rating (a stellar number in trying economic times). What’s more, there is a modest upside for Philadelphia – or there should be, anyway – when its mayor enjoys a good national reputation. Federal money flows a bit more freely, and, in an admittedly indirect way, it helps the city’s image to be represented by such a competent ambassador.

That would be small consolation if Nutter had indeed mentally checked out, as some people – political and otherwise – have concluded. The mayor was too frequently missing in the debate over AVI. I don’t know that he would have helped his cause with more in-person arm-twisting (some suggest his very presence predisposes Council to vote nay), but flying back from Florida to rescue a prized initiative did not look good.

But that was an exception. Nutter as mayor has been more or less omnipresent. After his conference coronation, he resumed his intense public schedule of press conferences, job fair appearances, church stops, and so on.

We shouldn’t confuse a lack of progress on the most daunting urban challenges with a lack of interest or effort. Nutter’s administration has worked every angle of the stubborn violent crime problem, from the bully pulpit to policing strategy and grassroots organizing. And though he was publicly disengaged from the school system in his first term, since the Arlene Ackerman meltdown he’s been intimately involved.

To me, Nutter does not look to have one foot out the door so much as he looks like a man working – without a lot of success – on intractable problems. I wanted to ask him directly, but he was “not available” for an interview.

Even after the recent setbacks, Nutter still has ample opportunity to accomplish more than a lot of second-term mayors. He stands an excellent chance of getting AVI through Council next year. And the School Reform Commission – one that he largely formed – seems determined to make whatever changes are necessary for the district to achieve long-term fiscal stability.

Would those accomplishments be enough to satisfy the critics? Given the scope of the city’s problems, almost certainly not. Would it help if Nutter could find a way to avoid alienating Council every time he opens his mouth? Yes. But it’s too early to blow the whistle and call this mayor’s game over.

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