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A Council record of accomplishment

Known for his mastery of policy, he hopes to prevail as a reformer.

Michael Nutter grew up intrigued by city politics. Lately, his campaign has been shaped by his fallout with an old model: Mayor Street.
Michael Nutter grew up intrigued by city politics. Lately, his campaign has been shaped by his fallout with an old model: Mayor Street.Read more

In 1981, at age 24 and unsure of what to do with his life, Michael Nutter started hanging around Philadelphia City Hall, trying to get smart about sheriff's sales in hopes of becoming a real estate mogul.

He found himself drawn to the ornate City Council chamber, where he focused his attention on one new member, a black man like himself.

To Nutter, this councilman seemed well-informed, eloquent and fearless. He understood Council's rules better than anyone in the room.

"The guy could talk for an hour and not repeat himself," Nutter recalled. "I thought this is kind of wild and fascinating at the same time."

So wild, so fascinating that Nutter decided to take a shot at politics himself.

The "guy" was John Street, the same John Street with whom Nutter would develop a torturous relationship.

Nutter appreciates the irony of the tale. But he's not saying that Street, whom he now holds in vigorously reciprocated contempt, was his mentor or inspiration. He reserves those labels for Councilman John Anderson, an independent-minded Democrat who died in 1983 and had much the same political appeal that Nutter does now.

In some significant ways, though, Michael Nutter would emulate John Street.

Nutter wanted to get elected to City Council, and he did, representing the Fourth District (Wynnefield, Overbrook, Roxborough, Manayunk, East Falls and parts of North and West Philadelphia) for nearly 15 years. He wanted to be seen as a master of government's details, and he was.

Now, Nutter is trying to succeed Street as mayor. And while Street is not on the May 15 Democratic primary ballot, Nutter has uttered more harsh words about him than about Bob Brady, Dwight Evans, Chaka Fattah or Tom Knox.

"Philadelphia's next mayor must run this city differently than John Street has," Nutter's first campaign commercial intoned. "Michael Nutter will."

There is, of course, much more to the man than his history with Street.

He is a former financial adviser and disco deejay, a husband and father. He is a Baptist who was born a Catholic, an African American politician without much of an African American political base. He is a political reformer who has been a ward leader since 1990, a charisma-challenged policy wonk whose dry wit has been the prime source of humor in this year's mayoral forums.

"No candidate is more informed," said supporter Leslie Anne Miller, the former general counsel to Gov. Rendell. "No one has better articulated positions on a variety of issues, because he's actually taken the time to think about the issues."

Before resigning his Council seat last summer to run for mayor, Nutter had solidified his reputation as the body's most independent and arguably its most accomplished member.

He played a key role on such issues as banning smoking in public places, writing new ethics rules to address the pay-to-play system, enacting campaign finance reform, keeping the wage- and business-tax cuts in place, and hiring 100 more police.

He left Council respected by his colleagues for his intellect, his savvy and his work ethic. But none of them has endorsed his mayoral campaign.

Some say privately that he is too convinced of his own rectitude; some wonder whether he is too much of a loner to be an effective mayor.

"I don't know what Michael's style as mayor would be, but you can't afford to shut the flaps of the tent," said Councilman Jim Kenney, a supporter of Brady's. "On Council, he had the proclivity to not bring people into his confidence and then spring things on them. People in government don't like to be surprised."

Told of that criticism, Nutter acknowledged that when the appropriate course of action seemed obvious to him, he sometimes assumed everyone else would simply agree. But he makes no apology for his unwillingness to compromise when he sees principle is at stake.

"You hear it said that I couldn't close a deal. What that's about is my stubbornness and commitment to the integrity of what I put forward versus taking what I could get," he said. "It's the issue of 'You're at 10 and so-and-so's at 6 so why don't we call it 8.' In Philly, that's called closing the deal. Whereas I'd be saying, 'No, actually, I'm at 10. That is the deal.' "

His commitment to his stands has won him the support of about 3,700 donors and an enthusiastic core of volunteers and supporters.

These people see him as someone who would be a different and better mayor than John Street.

In a city steeped in racial and ethnic politics, Michael Nutter is an anomaly - an African American with at least as much appeal to whites as blacks - explained by the mix of worlds in which he has lived.

Nutter spent his childhood in a middle-class home in the 5500 block of Larchwood Street in West Philadelphia. His mother, Catalina, worked for the telephone company for 34 years. His father, Basil, was a salesman and a plumber.

When Nutter was born, the neighborhood had any number of whites. When he left home, it was predominantly black.

He attended a racially mixed school, Transfiguration of Our Lord. As a teenager, he worked at the Jewish-owned corner drugstore.

Race was not a big topic in the Nutter household. Hard work and education were, and so, too, was the proper way to act and to talk.

"Dad said you must speak the king's English," Nutter's sister, Renee Messina, remembered. "No ghetto talk, you speak proudly. A lot of how Michael carries himself was built inside that house."

In many ways, the turning point of Nutter's life was attending St. Joseph's Prep, the prestigious, mostly white Catholic high school at 17th and Girard, on scholarship.

Nutter remembers how uncomfortable he was at first, walking the last few blocks from the Broad Street subway along the gang-dominated streets, in his jacket, tie and starched white shirt.

At the Prep, he made contacts that have lasted for decades; his campaign donors include many classmates, often suburban Republicans. At the Prep, he also made a fast friend, Robert Bynum, now the owner of the Zanzibar Blue night club in Center City.

From the Jesuits, he learned the value of service, which helped bring him to politics, and the art of questioning, which ultimately caused him to abandon Catholicism.

His fellow alums remember him for the humor he displayed and the respect he earned.

"People considered me the leader of the team, but Michael was the real leader," said Brian Cattie, the Prep's football cocaptain when Nutter was a reserve defensive back. "I was a white kid from Jenkintown. He made it comfortable for everyone. He broke down a lot of walls."

From the Prep, Nutter went on scholarship with Bynum to the University of Pennsylvania. He failed in his quest to become a doctor - "and the world is a safer place" for it, he says - but left with a business degree from the Wharton School.

He worked for Xerox, then went back to the Impulse disco at Broad and Germantown, owned by Bynum's father, spinning records as Mixmaster Mike.

The Impulse hosted political fund-raisers, and the young Nutter met rising black politicians of U.S. Rep. Bill Gray's Northwest Alliance, like Marian Tasco and John White Jr. Talking with them led him to City Hall, watching John Street, and meeting John Anderson.

He managed Anderson's 1983 reelection campaign for Council-at-large and was devastated when Anderson, 41, died after winning the primary. A year later, Nutter helped Angel Ortiz, an Anderson ally, win an open Council seat in a special election.

Nutter became Ortiz's councilmanic chief of staff and began to plan how to secure a Council seat of his own. He set his sights on the Fourth District, a racially mixed area represented by a white Democratic ward leader named Ann Land. And Street came into his life, not in a positive way.

At a party caucus, Street and several Council leaders demanded that Ortiz fire Nutter to thwart his challenge of Land. "I said I couldn't do it," Ortiz recalled.

Nutter subsequently left on his own, went to work for Ed Rendell's 1986 gubernatorial campaign, and started running for Council. Street opposed him. In the 1987 primary, Land held off Nutter by 2,000 votes.

But Nutter began running again, while working at an investment firm. In 1991, he won the seat, again with Street on the other side.

That same year, Nutter married Lisa Johnson, an urban planning grad student at Penn and now the chief executive officer of Philadelphia Academies, a nonprofit that helps city school students think about jobs and careers.

"He was funny, engaging and serious about what he wanted to accomplish," Lisa Nutter recalled recently. "He was what your grandmother would call a purposeful young man. I was an adult, and I'd been through enough drama to appreciate what he was about and understand what he could bring to my life."

The couple has a daughter, Olivia, 12, a sixth grader at the Masterman School. Nutter also has a son, Christian, 23, from a previous relationship, who lives in New Jersey and talks with his father frequently.

So Nutter came in 1992 to a City Council where Street was president. By then, the two men had aired their differences and agreed to work together.

"I wanted to learn the place," Nutter said. "I had studied him. I understood his rise. I understood what it was about. It was about understanding the budget. It was about taking risks, taking stands on big issues. But ultimately it was about being a student of government and the mechanics of how the place worked. . . . I'm not saying I tried to model myself after him. But I understood the model."

With Street's assistance, and over Mayor Rendell's opposition, Nutter won passage of a bill in 1993 creating the Police Advisory Commission, a civilian review board.

Street and Nutter worked together for years, the younger man following the elder's lead. Nutter remembers Street occasionally talking about how he would become mayor, make Nutter Council president in the second term, then resign before the end to let the younger man become mayor.

Said George Burrell, a Street political adviser and Fattah supporter now: "I think Michael's relationship with the mayor is grounded in his view that a promise was made and not kept - and he has never been able to see Street objectively."

Nutter said he didn't take the promise seriously.

(Street chose not to be interviewed for this article.)

The Street-Nutter falling-out came over several issues, most notably domestic partnership, the question of whether the same-sex partners of city employees should be entitled to the same benefits as spouses. Nutter helped get a benefits bill passed despite Street's strong opposition.

Other clashes developed. The breaking point came in the 1999 mayoral primary, when Nutter endorsed John White Jr., the man who had introduced him to Anderson. When Council Democrats assembled to endorse Street in the general election, a reluctant Nutter stood on the fringe of the gathering, visibly uncomfortable, and kept his mouth shut.

With Street as mayor, Nutter, now in his third term on Council, established his independence in unmistakable terms.

In 2002, when Street wanted to skip a year of promised wage-tax cuts, the councilman led the fight to restore the cuts. In 2003, with some black leaders looking for an alternative to Street, he let his name be bandied about, even though he was content to wait.

He worked for ethics reform and in 2006 saw the fulfillment of his effort to ban smoking in most bars and restaurants.

"The tragedy of the Street administration," Nutter said, "is that it could have been so much more but for John Street, his stubborn, completely narcissistic, vindictive personality."

In running for mayor, Nutter has been nothing if not disciplined.

He spent long hours in the gym starting two years ago, losing nearly 20 pounds and learning to get by on little sleep.

He hired a skeleton staff, saving as much cash as possible for a media barrage at the end. He spent almost every afternoon on the telephone, asking people for money.

He developed detailed positions on all of the issues, and at candidate forums, he frequently won the loudest cheers.

But even though the Daily News listed him as the 2-1 favorite two days after the last election, Nutter faces challenges as the day of reckoning approaches.

One is his apparent lack of appeal to the black community. In some campaign polls, he has failed to get 10 percent of the black vote.

Colleagues say he can come across as dispassionate and coldly analytical. Many of the issues with which he has been linked - ethics in government, lower taxes and smoking bans - don't resonate with families struggling to survive and counting on government services.

And a lot of blacks don't appreciate his criticism of Street.

At a barbershop in Frankford one Saturday in March, Nutter struggled to convince an animated African American block captain, Dave Scott, that a Nutter administration would make a difference.

"We've been suffering for too long," Scott said. "I'm talking about black men and women."

"Black men and women, white men and women, it's a big city," Nutter replied.

"I'm talking about our kind right now," Scott said.

Nutter's minister, the Rev. Albert Campbell of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, said the candidate is getting a bum rap.

"Believe it or not, black persons are expected to be servants of all the people," said Campbell, who has known Nutter for more than 20 years. "I feel he's black enough for me."

Another potential problem is Nutter's relative lack of support from organized constituencies, which raises the question of whether he can assemble a winning coalition. He says his base is the people who appreciate what he has done on Council.

"I own the tax issue; that's a citywide issue," Nutter said in an interview over dinner. "I own the ethics issue; that's another one. I put 100 police on the streets; to some extent I've taken the issue away from Dwight [Evans]. You and I can sit in this restaurant and breathe; people still thank me for that. I've worked on more citywide issues than these guys have had an opportunity to think about."

Furthermore, he thinks that candidates, strategists and journalists alike have underestimated him.

People, he says, didn't believe that he would give up the security of his Council seat to take the risk of running. But he did.

They didn't think he'd be able to raise enough money to mount an effective television campaign. But he has.

They don't expect him to bust out of his niche of white liberals and white-collar black voters. But he says he will.

And some people, including the editors of the Philadelphia Tribune, have asked him to refrain from criticizing the Street administration. But he hasn't.

"Every election is a referendum on what's going on right now," Nutter said. "We wouldn't be talking about crime if there hadn't been 406 homicides last year. We wouldn't be talking about taxes if ours weren't among the highest in the country. We wouldn't be talking about ethics if not for the federal investigation . . . "

If elected, he pledges to use every day in office to work to bring down the crime rate, foster a job-creating business climate, and rid Philadelphia of its image of a city corrupt and content.

"You have to have a sense of urgency and a sense of passion to get things done," he said, "and accept the fact that you will make decisions that will upset some people.

"I do what I do because of a passion to serve."

The Nutter File

Age: 49

Residence: Wynnefield

Political party: Democrat

Education: St. Joseph's Preparatory School; University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School.

Business experience: Worked at the Impulse disco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Was investment manager at Pryor, Counts & Co. Inc. during the 1980s, specializing in public finance.

Politics and government: Member of City Council, 1992-2006, representing Fourth District. Chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, 2003-2007. Democratic ward leader, 52d Ward, since 1990. Member of the Board of City Trusts since 2001.

Family: Married to Lisa Johnson Nutter. They have a daughter, Olivia, 12, who stars in a commercial for the campaign. Nutter has a son, Christian, 23, from a previous relationship.

Income: The Nutters reported income of $176,742 in 2006, primarily from his City Council salary and her salary as president of Philadelphia Academies Inc.