THE MAYOR came to see me last week to talk about our relationship - two days before this newspaper released a poll showing that 53 percent of Philadelphians don't want to see him re-elected. Full disclosure: No one was more excited by Michael Nutter's candidacy than I in 2007. The city was in desperate need of, as he put it, a "new day, new way," and his emphasis on cutting-edge policing and political reform spoke to the times, as I wrote in Philadelphia magazine back then.
I've been critical of the mayor since those initial heady days early in his term. As I told him, today I find myself feeling disappointed in his job performance. Judging by the poll numbers, I'm not alone. To his credit, the mayor ticked off a list of achievements: a descending murder rate, an ethical City Hall, the elimination of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, not to mention changes at the Board of Revision of Taxes, as well as at zoning and at Licenses & Inspections. And, to be fair, the national economy did utterly tank a year into his term.
Our conversation got me wondering: Have I been unfair? Have I been a typical Philly fan, so quick to turn on the hometown team? Did I have unrealistic expectations? Governing, after all, is different from campaigning. Could this actually be what change feels like?
As I've wrestled with the question, I've realized that my disappointment has little to do with specific issues or policy positions. I'm frustrated because I thought that we were getting a bold visionary who would reshape the relationship between the governed and its government. Instead, we got a mayor who seems to run from fights. The mayor knew that the city's pension and health-care costs were spiraling out of control when he took office (before the recession), yet he proposed a budget that increased spending by 1.4 percent. He's delayed renegotiating the contract with city workers, while other mayors have seized on the tough times to get givebacks or institute layoffs. On issue after issue - closing libraries, taxing soda, increasing property taxes, chiding Council for its fleet of city cars - the mayor seems to back down or reverse course the minute someone rises in opposition.
That's not the type of leadership we were promised when, in his inaugural address, Michael Nutter called his election the dawning of Philadelphia's "renaissance." The Nutter mayoralty is, at heart, a failure of narrative. What, after all, does Michael Nutter stand for? Where is Philadelphia, in his mind, five or 10 or 20 years down the road?
In a corrupt, one-party town, change doesn't happen through the gradual implementation of smart policies. It happens by ticking people off, by confronting time-worn roadblocks to the common good like patronage and sweetheart contracts and runaway entitlement spending. That's why so many of the best mayors don't go on to hold higher office: They've made too many enemies. Not long ago, I saw a documentary about Harry Truman. It included a clip of him addressing a joint session of Congress, in which he announced that the country's striking railroad workers would be drafted into the armed services, effective immediately. Within minutes, someone handed Truman a piece of paper. The strike, he announced, had just been "settled on the terms proposed by the president." That's the kind of in-your-face leadership that "new day, new way" suggested - and failed to deliver on.
That said, it's not too late for the mayor to reignite the passion that got him elected, but he'd better start thinking big. There are Truman-like precedents. In Atlanta, Kasim Reed cut back runaway pensions to pre-2000 levels and raised the vesting period to 15 years from 10. When union pickets protested, Reed brought shifts of them into his office, where he used charts to explain how, without pension reform, the city would go bust and their jobs would be lost. In Detroit, Dave Bing is literally rethinking the size of the city, razing dilapidated neighborhoods and converting them to thousands of acres of park and green space. Could that be done here? I don't know, but shouldn't there be a conversation about it? Think of it, after all:
We're sending trash trucks up many blocks to service 12 homes where there once were 60. Yes, they pick up less trash, but we still have to light, clean and police those streets, not to mention run sewer and water lines beneath them. All that sprawling inefficiency accumulates and finds its way into the city budget.
Why not borrow from the playbooks of Reed and Bing and think big? It's legacy time, after all. How about selling off PGW? Or, as Chaka Fattah suggested four years ago, how about getting out of the airport business and using the proceeds to combat poverty? Any of these ideas would require bold thinking from Mayor Nutter, not to mention shunning the urge to spend the next four years positioning himself for higher office. If he pulls a Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" - that "sometimes you just gotta say" WTF - I'll be right there, cheering him on.