Mayor-elect Michael Nutter yesterday selected Temple University executive Clarence D. Armbrister as his chief of staff, giving the critical post to an able administrator with limited political experience.
In choosing Armbrister, Nutter went outside his inner circle to fill a position customarily reserved for a political confidant. Even so, Nutter said Armbrister would be a powerful and high-profile member of his administration.
"When you are talking to the chief of staff, you are in fact talking to the mayor of the city of Philadelphia. That is his role. That is his responsibility," Nutter said during a news conference in an ornate City Hall reception room across from the second-floor office he will occupy come Jan. 7.
"The chief of staff's responsibilities will be to coordinate all the activities out of the mayor's office, drive the policy initiatives, and coordinate all other leaders in our city government," Nutter said.
By all accounts, Armbrister, 50, is a highly respected and well-liked executive with impeccable credentials. Along with Nutter's selection of Rob Dubow as finance director and Charles H. Ramsey as police commissioner, the pick highlights the mayor-elect's preference for richly experienced appointees - the "best and brightest," as Nutter puts it.
A lawyer by training, Armbrister was a partner at the Saul Ewing law firm before leaving to serve as city treasurer under Mayor Ed Rendell in 1994. From there, he became managing director of the School District of Philadelphia before stepping down in 1998 to become director of the municipal bonds division of UBS Paine Webber. His wife, Denise McGregor Armbrister, is one of five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.
At Temple since 2003, Armbrister is the university's chief operating officer, with oversight over most nonacademic divisions at the school, including admissions, the campus police, facilities management, community relations, computer systems and so on.
"Working in a university is like running a small city," Armbrister said.
Judging by the remarks of his colleagues and the enormous strides Temple has made in recent years, Armbrister ran that small city very well.
"First he's smart, second he's hardworking, third he is completely above reproach, just a straight shooter and a very solid guy," said Greg Rost, a former chief of staff to Mayor Rendell who worked with Armbrister at Temple.
His colleagues said he deserves a large share of the credit for Temple's gains, which include enrollment records, higher-achieving students, a far more active campus, and a host of new facilities.
"This is a guy that everybody respects, that everybody looks up to; he's a role model, and he's one of the primary reasons that we've come so far so fast," said Temple vice president Timm Rinehart.
Nutter said he and Armbrister had known each other for 25 years, noting they were in the same class as undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. Their paths have crossed professionally through the years, and Nutter described him as a friend, but Armbrister clearly has not been among the mayor-elect's closest advisers.
"The suggestion of his name came from a number of different sources, which is why Michael said, 'A lot of people are raising his name, so I have to go talk to this guy,' " said lobbyist Dick Hayden, perhaps Nutter's closest adviser.
What remains unknown is how much authority Nutter, a policy expert known to weigh in on the smallest of issues, will cede to his chief of staff.
Armbrister's colleagues said he had a prodigious work ethic - a must for any chief of staff - and described his managerial style as collaborative and empathetic.
"Clay is somebody who gets his way not by being authoritarian. . . . He does not go about the business of being a manager in a curt way. He is persuasive. He tries to engender a sense of cooperation and teamwork," said Joseph McLaughlin Jr., a Temple University professor and former lobbyist for the city.
Yet for all of Armbrister's administrative ability and managerial know-how, he does not appear to possess all the qualities of Philadelphia's prototypical chief of staff: David L. Cohen, Rendell's first chief of staff.
For one, Armbrister by his own admission is not an experienced political operator.
"I think I've always had an interest in politics, but I've never been what you'd call an insider," he said following the news conference.
Though that represents a departure from Cohen, it's not necessarily a failing. Most Philadelphia chiefs of staff - including Joyce Wilkerson, who has served Mayor Street for seven years - have operated largely behind the scenes, often leaving politics to the mayor.
Wilkerson yesterday said she viewed her job as making sure top staff did not "run over each other or run into each other." Nutter, she said, would have to decide how he wanted to organize his government, and what role he wanted Armbrister to fill.
Those who know Armbrister said he knew the political game well enough - even if he'd chosen not to play it.
"He isn't political, in the sense that he won't suspend good judgment in favor of political considerations," said former Temple University president David Adamany, who hired Armbrister.
"But he is politically savvy. He understands who the politically important people are and the need to work with them."
And given Armbrister's gentle nature, it's unclear that he will be up to the role of administration enforcer: the guy who cracks heads when the mayor needs people to fall into line.
"He's not confrontational. He's not harsh. He's not inclined to show a fist if a smile will do," Adamany said.
Armbrister's managerial skills would be enough to keep city departments in line, Adamany predicted, but he was less confident Nutter's new chief of staff would be an effective "tough guy politically in dealing with people outside the administration."
Cohen, who called Armbrister "an A-plus person," saw it differently. "Clay has the capacity to be the heavy when he needs to be, but I think most importantly, he has the capacity to motivate people so that you don't need a heavy."
For his part, Armbrister said he was willing and able to be tough when necessary.
"I'm not sure you always have to crack heads, but at times you have to let people know what the mayor's interests are, and people have to understand they need to get on board with that. I'm perfectly capable of doing that when required," Armbrister said.
Clarence D. Armbrister
Executive vice president and chief operating officer of Temple University.
Director of UBS Paine Webber's municipal securities group.
Managing director of the School District of Philadelphia, responsible for all non-instructional operations.
Treasurer of the City of Philadelphia.
Lawyer at Saul Ewing.
Bachelor of arts degree
in political science and economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979.
from the University of Michigan in 1982.
Armbrister, 50, is a native of Miami. He and his wife, Denise, have five children, and they live in the city's Overbrook Farms section.
For three years, Armbrister was president of the National Adoption Center. He also has served as treasurer of the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia.
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