HAS MAYOR NUTTER's clout fizzled with the failure of the soda tax?
Last Thursday, City Council ignored his frantic lobbying and failed to enact the levy on sugary drinks, choosing on the same day to override his veto of a bill allowing paramedics to remain in the fire union.
The override effort was led by Councilman Jim Kenney, for years one of Nutter's closest friends and allies.
The votes mark the second straight budget season in which Council rejected many of Nutter's tax proposals. Taken together, the events raise questions about Nutter's political skills as he and Council members approach their 2011 re-election year.
"Has the mayor made a case that he's politically effective and can make a candidate or not make a candidate? No," said former Councilman Daniel P. McElhatton, who got Nutter's endorsement in his failed bid for district attorney last year. "None of the Council members fear him politically."
With no clear challengers on the horizon and with more than a million bucks in his campaign fund, Nutter is expected to win a second term easily. But a perception that he can't get power brokers moving in his direction can only weaken his authority.
Nutter - who announced $20 million in additional cuts after the soda tax was rejected - argued that he had been foiled by a massive lobbying effort by the soda industry, which pumped big bucks into their effort to kill the tax. He insists the failure of the soda tax didn't pose serious political consequences.
"I think the soda tax has no impact whatsoever," Nutter said. "It's not a political up or down."
Still, this was an unwelcome blow for Nutter, who must now proceed with yet another year of fiscal restraint, attempt to negotiate union contracts and start his bid for re-election.
Already there is growing interest in a likely future mayoral candidate, Councilman Bill Green, a constant Nutter critic who is expected to run for mayor in 2015.
In a moment of foreshadowing, after a Nutter news conference last week in which he announced cuts, most of the reporters in the room flocked to Green to get his input, instead of surrounding the mayor to ask follow-up questions.
"[Nutter's] certainly not a lame duck yet," said Zack Stalberg, chief executive of the Committee of Seventy. "But because of the economy hitting him badly, there was a limit to what he can do in the first term, and Green is coming at him. I think those two things are going to work together to accelerate the perception that he's going to be a lame duck in the second term. Whether it really occurs is up to the individual."
Of course, Nutter continues to hold tremendous powers of appointment and budgetary control. David L. Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president who served as chief of staff to Mayor Ed Rendell, said Nutter can wield substantial power in the coming years.
"I think he's clearly going to have a very strong re-election, and that will help carry him forward," Cohen said.
Cohen also said that Nutter is not given enough credit for his successes in steering the city through the financial crisis while still reducing crime and pursuing government reform.
"I will say that if you look at what's happening in the economy and look at what's happening in economic development around the country, Philadelphia has held up pretty well," Cohen said.
After a bumpy 2008, spent lobbying in Harrisburg for fiscal relief and battling with Council, Nutter seemed committed to turning things around this year. The city's effective snow removal boosted his profile. And before releasing his budget, he personally met with every Council member to improve relations.
However, the soda-tax collapse revives questions about Nutter's leadership skills. He gunned hard for the tax, billing it as a public- health and a revenue initiative. He personally lobbied Council members. He cut his initial proposal from 2 cents per ounce to 3/4 cent per ounce.
But he never achieved the nine votes he needed. Some Council members said they were frustrated by what they saw as different arguments for the tax.
"There were mixed messages - sometimes it was about obesity, then at the end it was about contract issues," said Kenney.
Others said Nutter just doesn't have strong enough relationships in Council to move a controversial bill.
"Every mayor usually has a core group. I think what Michael may have lost in the last two years is the core group he could always depend on to work with," said former Councilman Angel Ortiz, who at one time employed Nutter as a staffer.
Nutter said he has good working relationships with Council members.
"One issue, one vote does not a career make and does not set any kind of agenda and is not a reflection of the level of cooperation and support that we have received over the past two-and-a- half years," Nutter said.
A key question now is will this loss impact Nutter's ability to negotiate union contracts? Contracts with three of the city's four municipal unions are unresolved, although they expired last June. The only unit with a contract is the police union, which reached a deal through arbitration in December that included raises.
The firefighter contract - also negotiated through arbitration - is expected in the coming weeks. But there's been little progress with the city's two nonuniformed-employee unions - district councils 33 and 47 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees - even though Nutter is counting on getting contract savings in his budget.
And those unions have little incentive to negotiate unfavorable contracts since a public employer like the city can't implement new contract terms when negotiations are at impasse.
"I think [the soda-tax failure] certainly emboldens anyone who opposes the mayor on anything," said Stalberg. "Winning beats losing. I think the union leaders are likely to see it as one more thing that's going their way."
Nutter said he didn't think this would have any impact on his contract talks with the unions.
"I don't think anyone is sitting around with a political calculator factoring in the soda tax," Nutter said.