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Nutter is blowing it big. He has to stop taking substance so seriously and pick up on what really counts here: Appearances.

Is Mayor Michael Nutter still struggling to figure out how to massage the city government? (AP Photo/Stew Milne)
Is Mayor Michael Nutter still struggling to figure out how to massage the city government? (AP Photo/Stew Milne)Read more

Buzz Bissinger is the author of "A Prayer for the City," about Ed Rendell's first term as mayor of Phila.

In 2007, my wife, Lisa, and I were having dinner with some friends at the Capital Grille when Michael Nutter, then the mayor-elect, walked into the dining room. I had known Michael for years, and I remembered his trajectory from a man with a wry and dry sense of humor to a humorless City Councilman in the early 1990s who buried himself in reports taller than he was.

But Michael had the bounce back in his step that night. He was beaming - a lovely antidote to the Stalinist Street years, when any form of happiness resulted in permanent expulsion to the gulag of the Northeast. I wanted him to succeed. That's why I voted for him. But after 17 months in office, I am edging to a reluctant conclusion:

He still doesn't have a clue.

You can point to victories, the most important of which is that people still like him and hope for his success: 90 percent of politics, after all, is perception.

But his handling of various crises shows impulsive media-driven judgment that inevitably has no prayer, as well as a shocking failure to have his ducks in order, with the result of getting blindsided and embarrassed.

He is also fighting with Council, engaging in such petty symbolism as trying to take their cars away when everybody with an ounce of political sense knows that a car is to a councilman what a pacifier is to an infant, the very thought of withdrawal only leading to revenge.

I don't say any of this as some idle observer. For four years in the early 1990s, I intimately observed the machinations of city politics under the administration of then-Mayor Edward G. Rendell and Chief of Staff David Cohen for a book I was writing.

Rendell could be nuts at times - deeply deranged would be more accurate. But he knew the essential element of his job, trying at all costs to keep other city politicians happy. He knew he wasn't as much the mayor as he was the city's head masseur. He knew that Council members, basically insecure, needed constant ego massages if he was ever to accomplish what he wanted.

Nutter is a lousy masseur; he probably finds it demeaning, which of course it is, but most of urban politics is demeaning because cities are still feudal empires.

The final straw for me was Nutter's recent reaction to the idiotic television series on A&E about the ticket-crazed morons of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Even if the ratings for the show are small (but not small enough to prevent a third season), it only foments the out-of-town perception, tracing back to the hideous police brutality of the Rizzo dictatorship in the 1970s, of a city that is dangerous, inhospitable, and unfriendly.

If Rendell were still the mayor, he immediately would have gone into the postal mode that also formed part of the repertoire. With justification, he would have strangled the person at the Parking Authority who green-lighted the series in the first place, then he would have gotten Parking Wars off the air even if it meant going to A&E headquarters and pulling the plug himself.

Nutter's response was, "I am of course concerned," general political-speak for "I could give a crap." But the image of the city, painstakingly improved over the last 15 years, now takes a dip.

There's more Nutter cluelessness, this one far more disturbing. If, as a way of balancing the budget, you propose a 20-percent-plus "temporary" increase in property taxes, you better know where all the bodies are buried. As Rendell's chief of staff, Cohen always knew the ability of these subterranean creatures to rise from their city ghost jobs like Night of the Living Dead and make life hellish.

When The Inquirer exposed the Board of Revision of Taxes, in charge of setting property assessments, for what it was and is - a living graveyard of do-nothing patronage hacks - Nutter seemed completely taken aback by the revelation. His response - to immediately call for the resignation of the BRT board - while it played well on the editorial pages, was politically naive. As for the proposed property-tax increase, it had no choice but to disappear.

There was also his attempt to close library branches as a way of saving money. Granted, the city is in terrible economic times and that is not Nutter's fault. But politicians know that libraries are hot-button issues. You stay away from libraries because of the outcry they cause over threatened closure. You stay away from libraries because they are reporting double-digit increases in patronage around the country. You stay away from libraries because they have become a sanctuary for so many in need.

You concentrate instead on other parts of the sprawling apparatus, like getting the Finance Department to collect $54 million in uncollected fines, according to a recent report by the city controller. Or getting the Revenue Department to collect $8 million in back wage taxes. Or collecting $560,000 in water delinquencies from 1,123 city employees.

After 17 months, Nutter is not a new mayor anymore. He has to become something more than the poobah of empty pronouncement.

His woefully inadequate staff must do a better job of watching his back. But he needs to realize that the art of running a city is conciliation and negotiation and timing and giving credit where absolutely none is due. You are only the mayor, Michael. Only the mayor.