Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open Left Rising?
by Chris Bowers, Wed May 09, 2007 at 01:39:43 PM EDT
May 9th, 385 RVs, April 5th results in parenthesis
Nutter: 31 (12)
Knox: 21 (24)
Fattah: 13 (17)
Brady: 11 (16)
Evans: 3 (10)
Now that is some rapid poll movement. It is so rapid, that one would be mistaken to assume that Nutter had the race locked up. Still, there is a huge amount of momentum at Nutter's back. It has been fueled by great campaign ads, an extremely hard working candidate, a large volunteer base, the endorsement of every single major local media source that has made an endorsement, the endorsement every single local progressive / reformer organization that has made an endorsement, and even by (!) by many members of the local chamber of commerce. In the last few weeks, everything in the campaign seems to be coalescing in Nutter's favor. Consider the following paragraph from the latest poll memo:
Nutter's favorable ratings have gone from 31 percent in April to 52 percent today. Evidence of Nutter's increased standing among voters is the fact that he is the most common "second choice" for mayor among every other candidate's voters. It appears that Nutter has improved his standing among all voters without alienating any single group of voters. Nutter leads among both black and white voters. Tom Knox closely trails Nutter among white voters and Chaka Fattah closely trails Nutter among black voters.This is absolutely stunning, considering the field Nutter is up against. Nutter is simply a former member of city council who came into office in the last reformer wave in 1991, and has traditionally been something of a gadfly. By way of comparison, consider the other four major candidates in the race:
- Tom Knox, a self-financing businessman in the mold of Michael Bloomberg, has spent more money on this campaign than all of the other candidates combined.
- Bob Brady, local US congressman and chair of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, has the support of virtually the entire local political machine, including about 85% of all local ward leaders.
- Chaka Fattah, twelve year veteran of the US house and husband of a local news anchor, has extremely high name recognition, progressive cred, and is a member of the CBC in a city where the African-American vote represents at least a plurality, and possibly the majority, of the primary electorate.
- Dwight Evans, chairman of the Pennsylvania House appropriations committee, also has significant labor support and, roughly speaking, hails from the same area of the city as Michael Nutter.
It is also revealing that the ward system in Philadelphia, which is the main electoral arm of the Philadelphia machine, has been virtually powerless to stop Nutter's rise (just as it was powerless to stop Knox's rise earlier in the year). I had long suspected that most ward leaders in the city, almost all of whom endorsed Bob Brady immediately upon Brady's entry into the campaign, had become too disconnected with the residents of their local neighborhood to change many minds in an even moderately high information election. I saw this in 2005, when in my ward, the 27th, every single member of our ward committee spent six months trying to recall our ward leader because he was stealing our election money to buy drugs and making candidate endorsements without even consulting other members of committee. Even though every single member of the local ward committee wanted him out, almost all of the other ward leaders in the city--the same ward leaders who immediately endorsed Bob Brady--fought tooth and nail to keep him in power. Could there be any better example that most local ward leaders were more dedicated to maintaining their own private fiefdoms than serving the needs of their constituents? They wanted to protect one of their own, not let a local neighborhood speak for itself. This is the same local machine had only barely fought off Seth Williams's primary challenge to Lynn Abraham for District Attorney in 2005 by keeping information on the election to an absolute minimum Williams only raised 20K, there was virtually no media coverage, and turnout in the election was only 12%, but he still got 44% of the vote against a six-term incumbent.
Endorsing Brady immediately upon his entry into the campaign meant endorsing the system that protected the power of most ward leaders, and was not representative of the will of the constituents of individual wards. It is instructive to note that once we did finally recall our ward leader, we improved turnout in our ward by 74%, in a city where turnout is otherwise stagnant. Further, every candidate we endorse ends up winning our ward, even longshot Lt. Governor candidate Valerie McDonald Roberts, who earned over 60% of the vote in the 27th ward but less than 20% of the vote statewide. By way of comparison, Bob Brady has actually gone down in the polls since mid-February, when he received around 60 ward leader endorsements (over 85% of all ward leaders) en masse and via acclimation. In the 27th ward, we represent the will of our constituents, we can still defy conventional wisdom produced by moneyed interests in moderate and high information elections, and we can turnout out the vote to back all that up. Ironically, even though we are considered "reformers," these are actually the tasks that traditional urban machines were supposed to accomplish. The key is that we are in regular contact with our constituents. That just isn't the case in most of the other wards anymore, who have been unable to make a positive impact on Brady's poll numbers. In the olden days, such a massive ward leader endorsement would have ended the election in Brady's favor right then and there. Instead, Nutter has surged into the lead, and it appears his only remaining competition might be Tom Knox, who the old machine despises more than any other candidates (they have even started a 527 to Swiftboat Knox). Both of the "outsider" candidates have surged past the ward leaders.
How did all of this happen? How did one candidate become loved by both the local media establishment and the progressive movement / open left? Netroots candidates are typically despised by establishment media, but in Philadelphia there has been a clear convergence. How did one candidate bridge the racial divide and become the favorite of both whites and blacks in a city whose major political divide has always been racial? In the last contested Democratic primary for mayor in 1999, John Street, who is African-American, narrowly edged out Marty Weinberg, who is white, each received about 90% of their support from members of their own ethnic group. How did the machine become so weak? How did Nutter pull all of this off, and still be liked by many local business interests? Answers to all of these questions are of great importance to the progressive movement / open left nationwide, because if this alliance can be pulled off in one of the three most Democratic cities in the country, we can pull it off inside the party anywhere in the country.
My suspicion is that it has all arisen from a widespread desire to see a more open city, instead of one run by a small number of insider interests. At its core, I think this is about transparency and popular participation in government. It contains elements of not only The Open Left, but also demonstrates that there is a possibility for an Open Right. Small business interests don't like the pay to play system that favors large corporations like Comcast anymore than progressive reformers like it. Whites and blacks alike no longer feel as though "supporting own of their own" means that they will necessarily have someone looking out for them in city hall. Members of the media as well as residents in local neighborhoods are tired of dealing with a machine that does not offer them either clear insight into, or a say in, the political process. The connection between poor city services, including serious problems related to violent crime, and a government that operates to protect its own power is being made on a large scale around the city. What Michael Nutter represents is a means to open up city government, in a way that already politically powerful and / or super rich candidates do not. I have personally felt that in my four or five conversations with Michael Nutter: he actually cares about what I think, and wants to engage in a dialogue.
Of course, like I said, that is just a suspicion, and the campaign isn't over yet. There is no guarantee that Michael Nutter will win, as there are probably a variety of reasons why people are supporting him. I will be attending a Nutter fundraiser tonight two blocks from where I live, and I will continue think about these issues and work to get Michael Nutter elected. This is a fascinating process, and might show the way forward for the progressive movement and the "open left" around the nation. The next week will be very exciting in Philadelphia.
Next up in my Philadelphia election blogging will be a look at-large city council elections. Click the Philadelphia tag for my archive on this subject, and check out Young Philly Politics for a lot more on the local scene here.