Michael Nutter began his City Council career as willing pupil and follower of then-Council President John Street. He ended it last year as Mayor Street's prime antagonist and foil.

Today, he stands positioned to succeed Street on the second floor of Philadelphia City Hall.

Those who have known Nutter are not all that surprised that he has come this far.

"He's a leader," said Jerry Taylor, who taught him history at St. Joseph's Prep during the 1970s. "That was evident right from the beginning. When Michael spoke, people listened. When Michael took a stand, people followed."

At 49, Michael Nutter is not a simple character.

He is an African American with at least as much appeal to whites as to blacks, which makes him an unusual politician for Philadelphia.

He is a self-proclaimed reformer who has been a ward leader since 1990, making him both insider and outsider.

He is a charisma-challenged policy wonk with a nasal voice who still managed to entertain audiences throughout the city this spring with his dry wit.

"As mayor, I think he'd be very demanding," said Councilman Frank Rizzo. "He can sit you down and figure you out real quick. He'd have a lot of top-rate people around him."

Born in West Philadelphia to parents who stressed education and good diction, Nutter began to find himself as a teenager when he went to the Prep on scholarship.

His next stop was 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 put that degree to use during the 1980s, working with a public-finance firm. But politics quickly became his passion.

Nutter entered the public arena as a protege of John Anderson, a city councilman who had much the same reformist appeal Nutter does now.

When Anderson died, Nutter went to work for another councilman, Angel Ortiz, before setting his sights on his own seat.

After one failed attempt, he unseated incumbent Ann Land in 1991 in the racially and economically diverse Fourth Councilmanic District, which includes parts of North and West Philadelphia, Overbrook, Roxborough, Manayunk, East Falls, and Nutter's own Wynnefield.

Nutter, who is married and has two children, won easy reelection to three more terms. He built a reputation, particularly during recent years, as one of council's most independent and most accomplished members.

He played a key role in 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 promised wage- and-business-tax cuts in place, and hiring additional police.

"He's smart, works hard, was always well prepared, sometimes too prepared," said his former council colleague Jim Kenney. "He can beat a dead horse into dog food."

He won the respect of many of his council colleagues, but not their affection. Some of them say privately Nutter can be smug and self-righteous. They worry that he is too much of a loner, too convinced of the rectitude of his own positions, to be an effective mayor.

Now, they may well get a chance to find out if they're right. And Street will have to complete the final seven-and-a-half months of his tenure knowing that one of his least favorite public figures is waiting in the wings.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.