Davies: The Goldilocks mayor

More than half the city thinks Mayor Nutter should not be reelected. Yet, with the primary election a little more than two months away, no viable candidate wants to challenge him.

So, what gives?

Obviously, Nutter isn’t doing a bang up job if 53 percent of voters in a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll say it’s time for a new mayor. But he must be doing something right if everyone is afraid to run against him.

Here’s my theory: Nutter is the Goldilocks mayor. He’s not too hot and he’s not too cold. But given that past mayors were reelected after bombing the city and coming under federal investigation, a warm bowl of porridge is just right.

To his credit, Nutter has cleaned up City Hall and made other reforms. The stench of pay to play is no longer the assumed form of doing business — despite corruption investigations of the police and the Licenses & Inspection departments.

Nutter is also likable. He seems earnest and honest. He is a good cheerleader and spokesman for the city. Even most of his critics want him to succeed.

No doubt Nutter has critics. In fact, he has managed to anger just about every key constituency group in the city, including blacks, business owners, union leaders, city employees, City Council, and many taxpayers.

Don’t just take my word for it. In a speech to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Nutter boasted as much: “We very artfully and skillfully managed to upset just about everybody in the city.”

So if everybody is upset and more than half the city is ready for a new mayor, why is Nutter cruising to reelection without any real opposition?

A big part of the problem is that Philadelphia is a one-party town. The city’s Republican leaders are an embarrassment. In any other business, the city GOP bosses would have been fired years ago. But instead, they feed off of a shrinking patronage pie.

Considering registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city 6-1, it would take a near perfect candidate to become mayor. But the GOP can’t even find a sacrificial lamb. They are so desperate they approached a Democrat, Brett Mandel, who said no.

John Featherman is running as a Republican, but without the party’s backing. He’s run for public office four times and lost. Featherman will soon be 0-for-5.

A short list of potential Democrats considered running, but none could see a clear path to victory. City Councilman Bill Green was probably the strongest challenger, but is waiting until 2015. Having to resign from council to run was likely a factor, as was trying to raise enough money.

Green’s best chance may have been now. Even if he lost, it would help position him as the front-runner in 2015. Instead, four years from now, Green will have to distinguish himself from a crowded field.

Millionaire Tom Knox had the money to take on Nutter, but that’s about it. He spent $12 million of his own cash to come in second to Nutter in the 2007 primary.

Knox said he didn’t want to run a negative campaign against Nutter. He didn’t have those qualms the last time around. The reality is, Knox was unlikely to win.

Even after spending all that money flooding the airwaves in the last election, 70 percent of voters couldn’t tell Tom Knox from Don Knotts. And when you are rich and 70 years old, who needs such a thankless job?

So the 2011 mayoral race is over before it begins. In some ways it feels like the 2015 race has already begun. Some potential candidates are already plotting strategy, shoring up political support, raising money, and jockeying for attention.

But what does that mean for the next four years under Nutter? Second terms are usually less productive for any mayor. Given that Nutter’s first term left many feeling disappointed, it is hard to get excited about round two.

No doubt the recession overshadowed Nutter’s first four years. It hampered many of his plans and forced him to raise taxes twice in a city that already had one of the highest overall tax burdens in the country.

Going forward, the city’s finances are going to remain stressed as the economy limps along and the Republicans in Harrisburg cut local funding. The main problem for any mayor is the city’s tax base can’t support its current cost structure. The big cost drivers remain pensions and health care.

Nutter has made some efforts to reduce those costs in the negotiations with the police and fire unions, but it has not been enough. Those costs are eating up the budget.

Two city unions are still without contracts. If Nutter can get some real savings, he can have a lasting impact on the city’s long-term fiscal health. I don’t expect that to happen, but I hope Nutter proves me wrong.

Nutter has largely maintained the status quo when it comes to the overall cost of government, and the delivery of services. Some see that as a strength. I’m not arguing for slashing and burning, but I don’t think that preserving the City Hall bureaucracy is such a great legacy.
Hopefully, Nutter’s next four years will be better than a warm bowl of porridge.

E-mail deputy editorial page editor Paul Davies at pdavies@phillynews.com.