“Slogans and Soundbites”: An Interview with Michael Nutter

 /  May 27, 2016, 2:44 p.m.


A lifelong Philadelphian, Michael Nutter began his political career serving on the Philadelphia City Council and was later elected as mayor in 2007. He finished his second term in January 2016. During his tenure, Nutter served as President of the United States Conference of Mayors and as President of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. Currently, he serves as a CNN political commentator, professor of professional practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, senior fellow and spokesperson for What Works Cities, and is a Spring fellow at the Institute of Politics. The Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with him to discuss the present challenges facing large cities and the implications of the 2016 presidential election on urban life.

The Gate: Last fall, you said of Philadelphia, “If we just want to be the city in between New York and DC, and we just want to be the Rocky Steps and Liberty Bell and cheesesteaks, we can do that. We have that market, and we can try to live on it. I think that’s not enough for us. We can do more.” As the country’s fifth largest city, what can Philadelphia bring to the United States that is uniquely its own and goes beyond tourism?

Michael Nutter: Look at the history and prominence of Philadelphia, and the role it has played in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, abolitionist movement, inventions, Ben Franklin. The city developed as a port city, of course, and went on to be a great manufacturing center. The motto of Philadelphia many years ago was, “workshop to the world.” I mean we made almost everything, and we’ve had a national and international prominence for a long, long period of time. Those were our natural strengths and assets, and you have to build on those things. We have now become a great educator in medicine, life sciences, pharmaceuticals and biological materials, information, technology, sustainability, and hospitality.

So, Philadelphia is a great old and industrial city in America, and there are many great old and industrial cities in America, but the jobs there went away. They went down south, out west, or to other parts of the world, and so we’ve had to remake ourselves a number of times. As the fifth largest city in the United States, and the second largest city on the east coast, we are proudly situated between New York, the financial capital of the country and half the world, and Washington, DC, the political capital of the world. Philadelphia is the great connector, quite frankly, between those two cities, but it has some prominence and a role to play of its own. We are often the leading city on many different initiatives, with the thought leaders and the movements that come out of Philadelphia. We’ve been a great innovation city for a long period of time with all the inventions coming out of Philadelphia, and I think that work continues in many ways. So, we have a role to play. Chicago is a great city, New York is a great city, there are tons of great cities around America. I don’t think we have to fight about who’s a great city. What we should be doing is celebrating the incredible range and wealth of the great cities that we have in America. But I still think that Philly has a unique role to play.

Gate: Philadelphia mayors can only serve two terms. Chicago, by contrast, has no term limits for mayors. How important are term limits? Is this something of concern for a large city that must be addressed immediately, or should other pressing issues take priority?

Nutter: There’s something to be said about longevity of service. There’s a wealth of knowledge that’s built up, there’s a consistency in practice, there’s continuity in the service. My perspective on term limits is that they’re all I’ve ever known. We’ve had term limits for the mayor’s officeit’s the only term-limited office in Philadelphiasince 1951. That’s all I’ve ever experienced. In cities that don’t have term limits, voters always have a right to make a different choice, change their mind, or whatever the case may be. So, ultimately, it’s always up to the voters to decide who they want in office, or to stay in office. In Philadelphia, you at least know there’s a guaranteed level of turnover, but even with that, voters can make a different decision at each re-election. Although it hasn’t happened, who knows. But there’s no perfect system. If it’s working in a particular city, then that’s fine.

Gate: Recently, the New York Times released a survey that concluded: “The people of Chicago are deeply riven by race, class and neighborhood, distrustful of the police, fearful of the growing rate of violent crime and united chiefly in their disapproval of the mayor’s performance and their conviction that the city is headed down the wrong track.” Politicians are often blamed in hard times and praised in good times. Is this what is happening to Rahm Emanuel, or is there something else going on?  

Nutter: It certainly seems to be a part of it in Philly, New York, Chicago, LA, Houstonthe top five cities in the countrybut cities are very complicated places regardless of size. There’s no office that is more personal to the day-to-day lives of citizens than being a mayor. I’m not sure where governors rank in that realm.  Then, of course, there’s the president because he’s the president of everybody, so everybody has an opinion. But on a day-to-day basis in any city, you depend on the mayor for everything, whether you think about it that way or not. You took a shower this morning and water came out of the showerhead. Lights work, don’t work, that’s the lighting division. Potholes, that’s the paving people. Did the trash get picked up or not? If you called 911, did somebody show up or didn’t they? In everyday things that people experience in their lives, more oftentimes than not, the city is directly or indirectly involved. And everything, depending on your perspective, flows up to the mayor or rolls down to the mayor, and ends up at the mayor’s doorstep.

I know the mayor [of Chicago] has said publicly that there is probably any number of things that he could have or should have done differently. I’ve been in that situation myself. You think you’re doing the right thing at the right time. In retrospect, you might think differently. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where there are many do-overs. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20 vision. The people who make commentary on Monday about Sunday’s game have the benefit of doing all the analysis, but they weren’t on the field. Cities are complicated. People have feelings and views, and they express themthey’re not shy in Chicago or Philadelphia. It all depends on how it’s affecting you personally, and then you share it. So I think a lot of it is, as you laid out, when things are going better, people are happier, and the mayor gets a little bit of credit. When things are not going so well, you get all the blame. It’s just the deal.

Gate: If you were the mayor of Chicago today, what would be the first item on your agenda?

Nutter: My general practice is that I don’t give other mayors advice in public. We know the huge issues and challenges with Laquan McDonald and overall police relations. That was not the start of issues between the police and the community that’s just probably now the most extreme public example of it. The mayor has responded to the report that came out a couple weeks ago by the task force about the Chicago PD by proposing a number of ways to try to deal with those issues, but they won’t be resolved overnight. Pension problems, budget problems, and the very public issues with public education did not happen overnight and won’t be solved overnight. All these kinds of issues are in many instances not so evident to the public and intricately intertwine with a lot of the same people involved in a bunch of the same issues.

Rahm Emanuel is a friend of mine, and what I’ve come to know about him is that he passionately cares about Chicago, and its people. I know the mayor is the first to saybecause I heard him say it after the election last yearthat he maybe needed to work on how he engages with people in certain ways. I probably needed to think about that myself, when I was mayor of Philadelphia. But the fact remains that Mayor Emanuel cares about this city and wants to work with people who care about this city. From a completely outside perspective, I think things are just at a point where the mayor and the communitywherever the community is or however it is defined really has to come together and develop some pretty comprehensive plans. There needs to be a series of actions that address all of these very complicated, serious issues over some period of time with regular reporting out that allows people to see what’s happening, notwithstanding anything they might think or hear or whisper down the lane. “Here are the steps that being taken to address police and community relations in some form in the Chicago Police Department. And here are the steps being taken to improve how we communicate with the public about police-related matters. Here are the steps we have to take to resolve some long-standing pension issues. Here’s the steps we will take on budget, here’s how we’re going to improve education and have better relations with the teachers’ union.”

I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but I believe in my heart and soul that the mayor wants answers to those questions and wants to bring people together in that kind of partnership. That’s going to take compromise and some openness on both sides. That’s not easy, I’m sure different things have been saidor perceived to have been saidby either side. And at some point in time, on behalf of the city of Chicago, folks have to come together for what’s in the best interest of the city and especially for its children, senior citizens, and other vulnerable people who will either benefit from those actions being taken or who will be most damaged if those actions are not taken.

Gate: Given that Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel are closely connected, and the people of Chicago are showing their displeasure with Emanuel, will that spell trouble for Clinton in Illinois come November, should she be the Democratic nominee?

Nutter: I would not think so. Much like I said, there’s a very personal relationship between the citizens and the mayor and the mayor and the citizens, and I think that the same can be said about the president of the United States of America. Mayor Emanuel is Mayor Emanuel, and Secretary Hillary Clinton is Secretary Hillary Clinton. That they are friends, or have known each other, or have a long history it’s like everybody’s got friends. I think Secretary Clinton will be judged on her own merits, her own history, her own reputation and her work, and that’s really how it should be.

Gate: On Twitter, you have openly questioned the qualifications of Bernie Sanders, as well as his political rhetoric. What stands out to you about Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders?

Nutter: I don’t think I’ve questioned Senator Sanders’s qualifications. I think I have raised questions about how he would implement some of the things that he’s talked about, because I have not heard how he would implement some of these policies. I don’t know that Congress, which the president has to work with, is going to approve of all of these different things. So, he’s clearly qualified to be president of the United States. I think the issue with Secretary Hillary Clinton, and I’ve been a long-time supporter of herI supported her in 2008, and have known both the Secretary and President Clinton for nearly thirty years, so I have a long standing history and relationship with thembut I think that the thing about her is that she is practical, she is pragmatic, she’s realistic, but she’s also tough as nails and a really hard worker. She’s demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle with the Republicans. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Congress, but the presidential race is the presidential race and if there’s no impact on the overall makeup of the Congress, then we face the possibility of having, hopefully, another Democratic president, but one who may have to deal with a majority Republican House and Senate. Again, compromise will be necessary, and I think she has demonstrated an ability to compromise and work with other folks and get some things done, and not stand in the way such that the perfect gets in the way of the good. Some people have the mindset that, “If it’s not pure, if it’s not one hundred percent, then they’re not going to budge.” Then in the end, they’ll be pure in their position, but will have have one hundred percent of nothing.

Gate: Is there a specific element of Hillary Clinton’s platform that perhaps appeals to cities?

Nutter: Absolutely. I think this is one of the classic challenges of Secretary Clinton, which is that she really wants you to know not only what she’s proposing, but also how she’s going to get it done and what the details are. So if you look at Breaking Down Barriers, which is really her major policy piece and has all kinds of components in it: criminal justice reform, support for small businesses, making college more affordable, HBCUs. If you have some time, and can download and read a thirty-five page paper, you will know everything that you could possibly know. Now it’s not as exciting as free college, free healthcare, and all these other things that Senator Sanders often talks about, but the reality is that with Hillary Clinton, you know that the person you’re dealing with understands cities and knows that governing is complicated. She wants to get into the details, and figure stuff out. Because that’s what mayors do every day. We figure stuff out and it is complicated. You can’t run a city on slogans and soundbites. I’d love to give rhetorical and flourishing speeches all day long, but at the end of the day, what people really want to know is, “Did you pick up my trash?” “Did you plow the snow?” “Are the street lights working?” “Why are there drug dealers on the corner?” Those are the things you have to work on, constantly and repetitively, and you have to do it well over and over and over again. Governing is really complicated.

Gate: You graduated from Wharton School of Business, as did Donald Trump. Supporters of Trump cite his keen eye for business as one of the main reasons they back him, while others criticize his business skills and claim that a business does not run in the same way as the government. What do you say to Trump supporters in response to their comments about his business skills?

Nutter: First of all, if I declared bankruptcy as many times as Donald Trump, I doubt that I could get elected as dogcatcher, let alone mayor of the city of Philadelphia. Maybe that’s a strategy, but I don’t know. Look, you got a lot of real estate, a lot of buildings all around, but to be honest, at the same time, Mr, Trump is the classic kid who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. Hell, I wish I had that start! Wharton did this or that, and I’m not in any way shape or form suggesting that he doesn’t work hard or figures things out. I guess he’s smart, but that’s one hell of a way to start and grow it from there. My father was a plumber and my mother worked at Bell Telephone. That was it. The government is not one of your private businesses. You can’t just say, “You’re fired,” like a TV show and do all these things. And I truly do not know what his level of understanding is of running a government: public employees, people in unions, people you have to hire, treaties, world leaders. I heard this crazy story where he said something to the effect of “I know about Russia because I hosted a beauty pageant there.” That’s like the Holiday Inn commercial: “I know how to fly a plane because I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.” The level of insanity and insult at the same time that you know something by going somewhere would be like me saying, “I gave two seminars at the IOP and therefore I should be president of the university.” What the hell are you talking about!?

Gate: Back in December, you took up a battle against Trump, especially after a hate crime against a Muslim mosque in Philadelphia. Yet Trump still won the Pennsylvania primary with almost 57 percent of the vote, winning all seventeen delegates from the state. Does this change how you will approach this matter with him now that he is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party?

Nutter: I’m for Hillary Clinton. Pennsylvania has partisan primaries, so that’s among him and the Republicans.

Danielle Schmidt

Danielle Schmidt is a fourth-year Public Policy and Philosophy double major and Human Rights minor. Danielle has interned for a non-profit employment center on the South Side and a bipartisan advocacy organization for immigration reform; she served as a Field Director for an Illinois State Representative as well. On campus, she volunteers for New Americans and enjoys exploring the city with her cattle dog.


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