Paul Davies: The riddle of the mayoral race

The riddle of the looming mayoral election is that Michael Nutter seems beatable, but no one is convinced they can beat him.

Sam Katz confronted that dichotomy before ultimately deciding last week not to challenge Mayor Nutter in the 2011 primary. In a statement, Katz said “leadership and vision are lacking” at City Hall. But Katz decided not to run because of “political and personal factors.”

Translation: Katz thinks Nutter has done a poor job as mayor, but he didn’t think he could win.

So, who could give Nutter a race?

Millionaire businessman Tom Knox, who ran against Nutter in 2007, is mulling another run. He’s got the deep pockets to fund lots of political ads, but he didn’t inspire many voters the last time around. Though the TV station managers are pulling for him.

Other names mentioned included the current and former city controllers, Alan Butkovitz and Jonathan Saidel. O.K., moving right along.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady would rather be mayor than commute to Washington to listen to House Speaker John Boehner. He has bailed Nutter out of a few jams. (See Dad Vail Regatta, ethnic parades, and the SEPTA strike.) But campaigns are not his strength. If only the election could be held in a backroom.

State Sen. Anthony Williams could mount an interesting campaign, but has said he’s not running. Some wealthy backers bankrolled his bid for governor because they liked his support for school choice. But donor limits in Philadelphia require more than three rich guys to fund an election that’s just months away.

All eyes have now turned to City Councilman Bill Green. He had said he wasn’t going to run against Nutter, but is now rethinking that position. Some believe Green will ultimately wait until 2015, while others think his time is now.

“It’s not a question of will he run, but when,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

Former Mayor John F. Street, who is opposed to Nutter and was encouraging Katz to run, says Green is “the strongest candidate.”

Any candidate faces the difficult prospect of trying to unseat a sitting mayor. That’s not easy in Philadelphia. Just consider: Wilson Goode was reelected after the city dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound and Street was reelected after a federal bug was found in his office.

Nutter has avoided any major scandals, but the term heard most often to describe his administration is disappointment. Many want to see Nutter succeed, but are frustrated by his inability to make the proverbial trains run.

And he has managed to rankle a number of key constituencies. Nutter’s relationship with City Council has been rocky. City workers are upset by the slow pace of contract talks and Nutter’s call to end the DROP perk.

Homeowners have been hit with a 10 percent increase in property taxes, while property values have dropped. Increases in the sales and parking taxes have left many city businesses more uncompetitive with the surrounding suburbs. Proposals like the failed soda tax have added to the economic uncertainty.

Nutter’s popularity in the African American community is much lower than in the white community, a poll earlier this year showed. Some, including Street, attribute that mainly to the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which has targeted mostly blacks and spurred a recent lawsuit against the city.

Part of Nutter’s broader problem stems from high expectations and the recession. He campaigned as a reformer and tax cutter who was going to bring major change to City Hall.

To his credit, he has cleaned up pay-to-play politics and overhauled some departments. Most notably, the hated License & Inspection agency has reduced delays and seems more customer friendly. The Planning Commission is trying to bring some reason to the zoning and development process. And Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose is weeding out incompetence at the Department of Human Services.

But in raising taxes two years in a row rather than making deeper cuts, Nutter failed to address the biggest reform issue facing City Hall: how to cut the size and cost of city government, while making it more efficient.

Granted, Nutter has been overwhelmed by the recession. As such, he blew a chance to use the crisis to negotiate union contracts that reduce pension and health care costs, and streamline the government.

Nutter also praised the police union contract but plans to appeal the firefighters’ contract. Both deals look very similar so it’s hard to see how Nutter can call one good and the other bad when neither brings about major savings.

So there are issues a challenger can use to attack Nutter. But before there can be debate, there needs to be a candidate.

Katz studied the issues and the polls. He concluded that — despite Nutter’s weaknesses and voter anger at incumbents — there weren’t enough votes for a Mayor Katz.

Street, on the other hand, says there is a clear path to victory against Nutter. “I don’t know who’s for the guy,” he said.

As mayoral opponents, Katz and Street never did agree on many issues. Time will tell who is right this time.

E-mail deputy editorial page editor Paul Davies at


VIDEO: As mayor, Nutter's draw in the African-American community has been questioned by some observers. At his inauguration celebration, the mayor harkened back to his days as the 'Mixmaster Mike' DJ, performing rap for an appreciative audience of supporters.