The most straightforward explanation for Michael Nutter’s unpopularity is that by the last year of a second term, pretty much every incumbent Mayor is unpopular, especially if they’ve done a lot.
People often don’t remember how unpopular many of America’s favorite ex-Mayors were the way out of office, but whose reputations repaired with the passage of time.
I’ve always liked Michael Bloomberg’s idea (maybe not original, but I heard it from him first) that high approval ratings mean you’re not doing your job.
He says that if he leaves office with high approval numbers “then I wasted my last years in office.” To him, high approval rating “means you’re skiing the baby slope, for goodness’ sakes. Go to a steeper slope.”
As noted in that article, Bloomberg’s approval ratings were high at the time he said this.
So one possible interpretation of Nutter’s unpopular lame duck status is that people don’t like the actual stuff he didn. And there is some of that – library closings, youth curfews, homeless feeding changes, property tax increases and support for charter schools are some things some people are still really mad about.
Another thread is that Nutter succeeded in making a lot of reforms, and now there are a lot of people mad at him who liked things the old way.
Most of the obvious reform issues in Philly politics aren’t really about solving complex problems so much as complicated politics: we know what to do, but somebody powerful is benefitting from the status quo, and politicians don’t see enough upside in ruffling feathers.
I know from my little area of politics and policy that one of Nutter’s big initiatives was to modernize the planning, zoning, and redevelopment-related departments. It seems like he made some big gains in those places, but again, the flip side of modernizing is that there are always going to be some people, maybe powerful people, who prefer the old ways and they’re going to get mad at you if you change things.
Another variation of this explanation is that Nutter simply focused on process issues too much to really excite voters – zoning, AVI, land bank, reforming different departments and hiring good personnel, being personally free of scandals.
When I think about the really big Nutter policy wins, it’s mostly that type of stuff. These kinds of issues are popular with politics and policy junkies, but they’re all about long term gains, and some, like AVI, require some short term pain.
Maybe Nutter’s focus on this stuff was a function of his personal values, or his campaign themes, or maybe that’s just the stuff that really needed to get done first before he could tackle some other issues of interest. From Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s big Philly Mag piece on Nutter:
In the broad-strokes department, Philadelphia’s executive branch has evolved from a pay-to-play pigpen to an exemplar of high ethics (the courts and the row offices are another story), while the city at large has morphed into a creative-class Eden, replete with all the requisite New Urbanist attributes, from accessible waterfronts to bike-able corridors to well-executed sustainability plans. The area in which the city has struggled most — public education — is the one Nutter has had the least control over. “A lot of what this administration is about,” says Nutter’s old friend and adviser, Saul Ewing lobbyist Dick Hayden, “is embracing the notion of what a modern city in the United States should look like.”
I think what some of the Nutter staffers want people to appreciate more is how far off we were from having a modern city government when they started, and how much political capital its required to get the house in order.
There are a lot of popular things that fall into the category of things Nutter could take credit for, but isn’t getting any credit for.
Bike share will be popular and will be identified with Nutter and the city. Sister Cities and Cafe Cret on the Parkway too. Other parks have strong branding associated with other organizations. Dilworth Park is heavily identified with Center City District’s brand, and The Porch with University City District’s. The Delaware Waterfront Corporation has done amazing and popular work, but people probably think about that as independent from Nutter too. What about all the Schuylkill River improvements?
And then you have the long term accomplishments like zoning and planning reforms that take decades to really change the physical landscape. Maybe those process wins were too boring for mass consumption, even if they were important to do. But still, unfairly or not, many voters are probably left without a tangible sense of what Nutter’s really done.
The trouble for the still-pretty-pro-Nutter rump in Philly politics continues to be that the Nutter electoral path to victory is narrow, and can’t reliably produce citywide wins yet. Nutter hasn’t focused enough, in my opinion, on trying to get kindred spirits elected to City Council.
That’s still the main problem: Nutter brought the nerds into the executive branch, but the nerds still aren’t on City Council.