Michael Nutter, reluctant celebrity

The mayoral candidate is now the man of the hour. Slowly, he is adapting to his surprising stardom.

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Like a movie star, Michael Nutter is now a cell-phone photo op. Snapping him are Raechyl Hurst (right) and Martha McKee (rear). Abdulah McKee shakes his hand.

Until 20 days ago, Michael Nutter was, at best, just a minor celebrity in this town. After 14 years on City Council, a walk through Center City might see him greeted by a lobbyist or a developer or perhaps a janitor from City Hall.

Those days are over.

Last week on Chestnut Street, a 16-year-old girl sidled up to him, pleading for more programs to help the children of single mothers.

Two blocks later, a sweaty jogger lifted his hand so Nutter could high-five him as he breezed by.

And then a 30ish professionally dressed woman laid this on him: "We're expecting great things from you" - words that can feel less congratulatory and more foreboding.

It's a new life for Nutter, who until May 15 was one of five Democratic candidates competing to become mayor.

His primary win has transformed him in a way that has yet to catch up with him, catapulting Nutter overnight from the equivalent of a B-list actor to Hollywood's hottest leading man.

"It's like, wow," he gushed the other day about the bus drivers who honk, the teenagers who shout, and even the suburbanites who scramble for a cell phone to snap his picture.

"People still seem stunned that the person who was in last place and the least regarded as winning was successful," said the Democratic nominee for mayor. "The underdog did it."

But while the rest of the world treats him as mayor-elect, Nutter is still unwilling to do that himself.

For instance, he claims he is ignoring the job resumes flowing in to him and his small circle of advisers.

Concerned he does not appear presumptuous because the Nov. 6 general election still awaits him, he insists that his attentions are attuned 100 percent to campaigning.

With that in mind, he's on the prowl for a new campaign manager since his old one, Bill Hyers, up and left for Nevada to be the state director of John Edwards' presidential campaign.

He is also back into his disciplined fund-raising routine, a strategy that helped him tap into a base of small donors broader than any of his rivals. He isn't putting in the four-plus hours of daily calls that he used to, but is still preserving two hours a day in his schedule.

Still, as the presumed mayor-to-be, he has found mayoral duties won't wait - for example, last week someone from the school district rang Nutter's cell phone to update him during a break in a heated six-hour school budget hearing.

Nutter listened for a moment, talked about the existing "environment of distrust" and then asked, "Has anyone brought the mayor into this conversation? I would strongly advise it."

The answer being no, Nutter picked up the phone and called Mayor Street himself. After hanging up, he smiled and said: "Look, I'm just a candidate."

For now, and for at least the next six months, Nutter will be living in two worlds.

Given that Philadelphia is a heavily Democratic city that hasn't elected a Republican mayor for 60 years, "There's a perception or expectation of what could happen in November," Nutter says, "and yet there is a campaign to run because there is a real live challenger." That person is Republican Al Taubenberger, who has raised $14,000 to Nutter's $3.9 million in campaign funds.

Nutter "has something no other mayor has had that I can think of: the time to really think, lay out a strategy, build the bridges that need to be built and think beyond Philadelphia in terms of what he can do," said Phil Goldsmith, a former city managing director under Street.

Still, the tension caused by Nutter's unusual position is evident in his body language. He is awkward in realizing that people now want to reach out to shake his hand as much as he, as a candidate, wants to shake theirs.

Nutter also chooses his words with care, telling a housing and development advocacy group last week, "Should things work out, know you have my full support to make planning in Philadelphia predictable."

Already, he has met with Street and City Council President Anna Verna, and spoken with influential union leader John Dougherty and former Republican state House Speaker John Perzel. He has talked with area business leaders and dropped in on a meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose wages the next mayor will help determine.

Nutter has also heard from the mayors of small nearby cities, as well as Mayor Shirley Franklin in Atlanta, and Mayor Sheila Dixon in Baltimore, all offering their support.

And from whispers to faxes, he is beginning to get an earful from government wonks and business types both anxious and excited to be part of his administration. "It's not so much that people are giving me names as much as they are highlighting talent," he says. City department heads are also personally reaching out, afraid their jobs may be on the line because they work for Street, whose administration Nutter campaigned against.

But as to any formal transition team or personnel search, neither is yet in the works. Nutter will only go as far as saying that files are being opened, databases created.

"We can think about how to implement the policy papers we put out, but I am primarily focused on being a candidate. I have no police commissioner in mind; I haven't interviewed anybody," he said.

Someone he has spent more time talking to now than before is Taubenberger, who invited him to lunch at a Port Richmond cafe after the primary.

"I wanted to set the tone of the campaign and make sure it was a positive one," Taubenberger said. Besides pledging to trade oatmeal recipes, he said, "We exchanged phone numbers so we can get a hold of each other very, very quickly" if need be.

Not everything in Nutter's life is different, of course. "I get the same treatment at home," he said, referring to what his 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, told TV viewers in a campaign commercial. "As she would say, I'm still just a dad."


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.