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At midpoint of Nutter's first term, ticking getting louder

Midway through his first term, Mayor Nutter says he anticipates focusing the next two years on much the same priorities that occupied his previous two: Reducing crime, supporting public education, improving City Hall services, and pursuing long-term employee-benefits changes.

Midway through his first term, Mayor Nutter says he anticipates focusing the next two years on much the same priorities that occupied his previous two: Reducing crime, supporting public education, improving City Hall services, and pursuing long-term employee-benefits changes.

But he is also fully aware that the climate has changed completely from when he first laid out his mayoral agenda. Key goals have been stalled by economic realities. Rather than driving events, he is largely reacting to them. And constituents are frustrated, some by a perception that the mayor is out of reach and operates on his own.

Now, with a primary election 18 short months away, the clock is ticking on the time Nutter has to make political repairs.

"This is not December 2007. Everything has changed," Nutter said in an interview this week, referring to the economy. "People have lost their jobs, their health care, pensions. They have a right to be upset . . . and at some point, they have to be upset with somebody."

What's unclear - for now - is to what degree that frustration may make Nutter vulnerable come his reelection campaign.

"There is a perception out there, whether right or wrong, that he hasn't done certain things, and there's not necessarily as strong a faith in him as a lot of us believe there should be," Democratic consultant Dan Fee said. As a case in point, he noted that many people were quick to fault Nutter for losing the Dad Vail regatta to New Jersey, as opposed to faulting the regatta organizers for not working with the city to stay.

To be sure, with nearly $1.4 million in the bank and potential opponents handicapped by strict fund-raising caps, the mayor is in a strong position to win reelection. His tenure has been overshadowed by talk of budget cuts, but he has steered the city through the financial crisis without a collapse. Homicides are down almost 24 percent from two years ago, and "Killadelphia" is seen or heard far less.

Moreover, no incumbent mayor in Philadelphia has lost reelection in more than a century.

Yet Nutter ends this year amid grumblings that his administration is somehow stuck, and he suffers from a perception that he too often keeps his own counsel rather than reaching out to core groups.

He is also faulted for some of the same shortcomings that plagued his predecessor, John F. Street, in that his administration is seen by many as insular, excluding key community and business leaders from access.

Such criticism is not lost on Nutter's advisers.

"He had been accustomed to doing a lot of things on his own, because he was a councilperson with a small staff. But I think he has grown to realize that there needs to be more and more delegation," said lobbyist Dick Hayden, Nutter's informal political aide.

Hayden also said part of the frustration stemmed from high expectations placed on Nutter since Day One. "He had a terrific first year, and the second year was filled with a number of obstacles, which - fortunately, I think - he managed with speed bumps rather than a car wreck," Hayden said.

For his part, Nutter seems puzzled by the sentiment that he operates as somewhat of a lone wolf. However, he said, "even that kind of feeling is an issue that concerns me a great deal, and is clearly something I need to personally work on because . . . I want people to feel they are engaged, connected, and influence what happens in the government."

Nutter said he expects the scrutiny he is getting, but in the end expects voters to judge him fairly.

"When you are in a leadership position - and in the context of having to reduce expenditures by $1.7 billion over five years - it's that much more difficult to keep everyone happy with what you're doing, and fully on board."

Given that, Nutter added, "I am going to work my butt off every day to give the citizens all I can, and do my best to be the best mayor I can be."

That will take some work.

To begin with, he must reassert control, say political observers, especially after he was brushed aside in resolving the recent SEPTA strike, and with the loss of the high-profile regatta. And still unknown is how Nutter will fare in settling contracts with the city's four municipal unions; a police award is expected any day.

Also, the mayor's popularity is questionable in the city's low-income black neighborhoods, where church leaders express dissatisfaction with him, partly, they say, because he has not been as visible as were Street or Edward G. Rendell.

"A lot of African Americans tell me they just can't reach him, they can't get to him," said the Rev. Anthony Floyd, president of the Philadelphia Council of Clergy, which counts 440 ministers as members.

In response, Nutter said, "The devotion of some of my personal time to matters of the budget has certainly impacted how I would otherwise spend my time."

Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, similarly complained that Nutter's administration has no point person for labor, and also does not regularly draw unions into discussions about everyday matters. "There's not a total lack of support for the mayor. It's a lack of inclusion on his part," Eiding said.

The dissent comes as well from the political and business classes, who say that in wanting to restore trust in City Hall, Nutter stripped away the business of politicking and in doing so stymied the process of governing.

Ward leader Ralph Wynder, who represents East Falls and other neighborhoods in the heart of Nutter's old City Council district, relayed how a woman he knows asked him for help in removing a dead tree that she feared was in danger of falling.

"Earlier, I could have called a commissioner or someone else I knew and gotten that done faster, but [Nutter] has made changes to stop favoritism," said Wynder, leader of the 38th Ward for 17 years. "Yes, some things needed to be corrected, but in some cases it may have gone overboard."

Nonetheless, Wynder supports Nutter. "I feel he has the best interest of the city at heart. In some ways, he sacrificed his own popularity to keep the city from falling apart."

Some business leaders were less generous. Several expressed a feeling of being cut off from the administration, thinking that Nutter - who campaigned on a platform of government reform - fears the criticism that may ensue from directly engaging in getting deals done.

"There's frustration in the real estate community about the [development] process having become more estranged from the mayor's office," Northern Liberties developer Bart Blatstein said.

Nutter has heard that complaint, and acknowledged the structural change in the government he has created - purposefully, he said, to reflect an approval process required for any project.

Still, he said, "I don't ever want anyone to feel any lack of access. . . . It concerns me, and I will continue to take steps to improve it."

Come his reelection campaign, Nutter doubts he will be judged on any single issue, but his work overall.

Insiders speculate about the possibility of City Councilman Bill Green's running, or Rendell, whose gubernatorial term ends next year, or even Tom Knox, the millionaire businessman who lost to Nutter in the mayoral primary and is now campaigning for governor.

While the campaign was "preparing for the prospect of an opponent," Hayden said, "I don't expect serious opposition in 2011."

History is on Nutter's side, not just because Philadelphia is an overwhelmingly Democratic town, but because no Philadelphia mayor who sought reelection has lost since 1884, when Democrat Samuel George King was defeated in his bid for a second term.

"It would take nothing less than an extraordinary candidate to beat a sitting mayor, or maybe somebody with twice as much money," said John O'Connell, whose Ninth Ward in Chestnut Hill typically turns out the highest number of voters per division.

O'Connell acknowledges that Nutter's budget-cutting decisions - such as the end of the city's free mechanical leaf collection - have left many residents with a bad taste.

"I know my neighbors are all complaining up here they can't rake their leaves to the curb and have the big truck come and vacuum them all up," O'Connell said. "But I think they won't vote the guy out over leaves."