Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Philly debates whether Nutter was too honest for his own good

I don't write about Mayor Nutter as often as I should (if only he'd been at Kent State, right?), but when I do, I often make some variation of the same point: That he's been the most honest mayor Philadelphia has seen in a half-century, by far (yes, that includes this guy) -- and yet in spite of fulfilling a dream of many of us who wanted to see good government in Philadelphia, he's been more than vaguely disappointing.

Philly debates whether Nutter was too honest for his own good

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After years of all of us decrying corruption as the problem, why has Philadelphia´s first squeaky-clean mayor since the JFK administration such a let down?
After years of all of us decrying corruption as the problem, why has Philadelphia's first squeaky-clean mayor since the JFK administration such a let down? MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer, file

I don't write about Mayor Nutter as often as I should (if only he'd been at Kent State, right?), but when I do, I often make some variation of the same point: That he's been the most honest mayor Philadelphia has seen in a half-century, by far (yes, that includes this guy) -- and yet in spite of fulfilling a dream of many of us who wanted to see good government in Philadelphia, he's been more than vaguely disappointing.

Some of that clearly wasn't his fault -- he didn't cause the long recession that struck not just Philly but the nation and the world, in his very first year in office -- but some of it clearly was indeed his fault, especially a lack of vision.

After years of all of us decrying corruption as the problem, why was Philadelphia's first squeaky-clean mayor since the JFK administration such a let down?

In the last two months, two really smart local journalists -- Patrick Kerkstra, writing in Philadelphia Magazine, and now WHYY's Holly Otterbein, in Politico Magazine (yes, that's a thing) -- tackled this, and honed in on the obvious question: Has the Nutter administration been a failure BECAUSE it was relatively honest (and remarkably so by our own lame standards)? Has the mayor's distaste for cutting deals with City Council and other power brokers been the main source of his woes?

Here's a excerpt from Otterbein's piece published this weekend:

Nutter’s critics (and many supporters, for that matter) say he is ineffective because he is a profoundly bad politician. They say he has refused to acknowledge the realities of politics in Philadelphia, where you must dole out favors and occasionally yank them away in order to push through legislation. “I wish it weren’t that way,” Stalberg says. “It’s very primitive, but you have to be willing to use very primitive tools in order to succeed.”

Ed Rendell, who has been lauded as one of the most masterful Philadelphia mayors in history, described the crude way things get done here in the book A Prayer for the City: “A good portion of my job is spent on my knees, sucking people off to keep them happy.”

Nutter operates quite differently. According to City Hall insiders, he insists that legislators should sign off on his ideas simply because they’re “the right thing to do”—a holier-than-thou attitude that doesn’t jibe with people who who, above all, want to be re-elected. It also doesn’t help that he has resorted to publicly shaming City Council, such as when he called them out in his 2009 budget address about their taxpayer-funded cars.

I think the underlying issue here is a fascinating one -- and it has to be broken down into its component parts. Can a politician succeed by putting himself above the Art of the Political Deal?....absolutely not. Show me a politician who moralizes and browbeats potential allies about doing what's right -- and 99 times out of 100 I'll show you an abject failure. If you're old enough, you may recall the Sunday school teacher approach of Jimmy Carter, which didn't work, not one bit  -- even though on key issues like energy he was absolutely right.

On the other extreme, we've all seen far too many politicians whose main goal is to milk the political system for their cronies and quite often for themselves. That results in not just bad behavior but bad policies that hurt the citizens they were elected to serve by essentially stealing from them.

The most intriguing politicians are the ones motivated not so much by the Art of the Steal but powered by their own massive ego. This personality variant -- I think of New York's late mayor Ed Koch as an archetype, although Ed Rendell and perhaps Bill Clinton belong in this group -- is willing to make a deal and sometimes skates on the edge ethically, not in order to pocket envelopes stuffed with cash but a) to stay in power and b) get things done -- things that sometimes actually benefit the public but definitely will get people talking about how great they are, which is their real goal. These egomeisters of politics can be as annoying as hell, but they do rack up accomplishments, and at the end of the day that's better than a Sunday school teacher with an empty collection plate.

Making political deals can be criminal, but it doesn't have to be. Think of LBJ as the embodiment of both. He arguably used politics to enrich himself when his family bought a TV station -- which can't easily be defended. He also told members of Congress that they could get a dam or a new federal highway in their district if they supported things like the Voting Rights Act or Medicare. Is that so terrible? Compared to the gridlock we now see not just in City Hall but in Washington and in Harrisburg, I don't think so.

So that's it, then? Brass-knuckle deal-making, as long as it's not criminal? Yes and no. In Philadelphia today, a politician like Mayor Nutter needs to be holding his nose to get things done -- because the broader atmosphere of City Council members, state lawmakers, etc., is still so toxic, raised up on the waste heap of machine politics.

Look back to the last clean era of Philadelphia politics -- the reform administrations of Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth. These two got things done -- even in the teeth of what was not yet recognized as crippling de-industrialization of Philadelphia -- without getting dirty. That's because they were part of a fairly clean sweep that threw out a corrupt entrenched party -- the Republicans of then-boss Sheriff Austin Meehan -- and replaced them with a whole slate of reformers that held its ground for about as long as urban reformers ever do, about a decade or so.

If you really want Sunday school politics, get rid of all of them, the "Happy birthday to me" House members and the "I'm the F'ing senator" senators and the slimeball judges and ward leaders. It wasn't easy in 1951, when voters were pretty engaged. Could it happen in the 21st Century? Do you believe in miracles?


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Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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