Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open Left Rising?

Something amazing is happening in Philadelphia, which will have repercussions far beyond our fair city. As the result of a remarkable confluence of the progressive movement / open left, an extremely smart and hard working campaign, local media endorsements, and even some local business interests, Michael Nutter is on the verge of becoming the next mayor of Philadelphia. In the course of just six weeks, every single poll shows him rising from the back of the pack into at least a statistical tie. Now, with only six days until the election, the most recent poll actually shows him in command:

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.
On the face of it, the idea that Michael Nutter could surge past all of these candidates simultaneously borders on the absurd. Fourteen months ago, when my powerful local member of city council, Jannie Blackwell, spoke at one of our ward meetings, she made a crack about how Michael Nutter thought he was going to be the next mayor but "it isn't going to happen." She actually laughed out loud at the possibility. When it comes to my political instincts, it is revealing that her crack was the first moment Nutter became my favorite candidate (although I didn't decide for certain to back up that choice with activism until late March of this year). I immediately assumed that Blackwell's position was a widely held sentiment within the local machine. Apparently, when established powers tell me that something can't be done, out of pure spite I immediately want to try and demonstrate that said powers are wrong.

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.

Tags: Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah, Dwight Evans, Machine, Michael Nutter, Open Left, Philadelphia, progressive movement, race, Tom Knox (all tags)

Comments

20 Comments

Re: Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open

I think the Nutter phenom may have tails, especially at-large.

Both the Inquirer and the Daily News decided to go for challengers: Matt Ruben, Andy Toy, and Derek Green look very strong.

Maria Quinones-Sanchez is also running very well in the 7th District.

I've been blogging on non-mayoral races here:
http://ballotforchange.blogspot.com

Interestingly, I think the Knox anti-machine ads may have got this whole thing started in earnest. They spoke to widespread dissatisfaction early on, and allowed people to talk about "revolt" from the party's anointed early on.

by AnneinPhilly 2007-05-09 02:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Philadelphia Mayor:

Unrelated, but the new Richardson adds are...good

http://www.richardsonforpresident.com/pa ge/s/jobinterview

by m g 2007-05-09 02:14PM | 0 recs
Does Open Gov't Trump Economics?

Chris, don't you think that Nutter's long association with reducing/eliminating taxes, including the Business Privilege Tax, helps explain some of Nutter's appeal to businesses, including his ability to raise funds? And if so, do you think that has any effect on whether or not the Nutter coalition is - or should be - replicable? Other candidates seem to have more union support and/or more economically populist messages which under normal circumstances would resonate with many progressives. I know that under most circumstances, Nutter's economic plan and elements of his crime plan would give me pause in a primary race, but his work on ethics and campaign finance trumps those for me in the particular circumstances of Philadelphia in 2007. But I'm not sure that that environment extends out beyond the city.

by Dave Thomer 2007-05-09 02:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open

I agree with your basic premise- that the Ward system is less and less powerful, and Philadelphia is basically sick of the current state of their government.  (John Street has a 21 percent approval rating.)  Nutter, like Knox was before him, is now tapping into that feeling, and clearly has the big mo.  Not only that, I expect many people to coalesce around him, and suspect that now that this is pointing in one direction, more and more people will be hopping on board.

The one premise I think is off is your surprise that Nutter has the support of the Chamber of Commerce.  Nutter is a decent guy, but, for the last 6 years he has been the leader of the Chamber of Commerce's fight to cut business taxes in the City.  (Whether you think that is a good thing or not- I don't- is not the point.  But, it flat out is one of his two signature issues.)  He also was honored by the same Suburban Chamber of Commerce ("he gets it" was the line) that had just endorsed Santorum.  From the very start he has been the Chamber's choice, just like he was their chief advocate on Council.  

In many ways, his campaign is more of a Bloomberg type than a Daley one. His main focus is on efficient services, lower taxes, etc.  Again, that does not have to be a bad thing- but- it is what he is campaigning on.

A few small errors:  

Evans hails from Oak Lane, Nutter from W. Phily, or really, Overbrook; not really the same part of the City.  

Abraham was I think a four term incumbent 2 years of being appointed, and then three 4 year election cycles.  I think Seth raised 70k against her.

Either way, things are exciting in our City.  I think some good Council people are going to win; I don't think Tom Knox is going to win; and generally, I feel pretty optimistic about where we are going.

by DanielUA 2007-05-09 02:38PM | 0 recs
trying to avoid smartest kid in the syndrome
But...

"The one premise I think is off is your surprise that Nutter has the support of the Chamber of Commerce. "

Being surprised isn't a premise--it is simply being surprised. I've dealt with a lot of so-called "netroots" or "progressive reformer" candidates over the past few years, and this is the only time I've seen one have such strong business support relative to other candidates in the race. And it is not just surprise--it is also meant to serve as a potential red flag or warning sign.

And, like I said they come from "roughly" the same area of the city. I think much of Nutter's city council district included the northwest, from which Evans hails. I'm actually only vaguely familiar with the northwest part of the city so I could be wrong. Honestly, there is no part of the city about which I know less, and which I have gone to less. So I could be wrong.
by Chris Bowers 2007-05-09 05:17PM | 0 recs
I didn't get the memo

What does "Open Left" mean?

by alarabi7 2007-05-09 02:41PM | 0 recs
Re: Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open

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
ok, I'm confused.  How did this person get elected ward leader in the first place?  Who in your neighborhood was voting for him?

How long until the next reorganization?

(I guess I'm assuming ward leaders are the PA equivalent of our precinct committee officers, though maybe this is off base... ?)

by wrog 2007-05-09 02:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open

Three very long years.

The next committee person election is 2010.

But 2008 and 2009 will have plenty of opportunities to build a reform movement.

by AnneinPhilly 2007-05-09 02:52PM | 0 recs
Nutter surge bodes well for Obama

Nutter gets some of the same criticisms as Obama too white for blacks and he's black for whites. His support as tops among both blacks and whites in the most recent poll is promising. This could be a promising move forward for Philly. Funny thing is Obama sent out an email for Fattah.

Chris points out 99 but forgets the 03 race. White Philadelphians forgot about race and coalesced around the now hated Street because he was under attack by republicans.

I generally like Nutter but don't like his ties to republicans like Tigre Hill and showing a film which the current DOJ scandal proves may have occurred in our city. That, being courted to run as a Republican, and member of the dlc(http://www.ndol.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contenti d=863&kaid=85&subid=108). Which would be funny watching Nutter not support Obama and supporting Hillary.

The chamber has been behind him as are most republicans(the rest support Brady because he's white and Knox is unacceptable w/ ties to Rendell) But in Nutter's defense he is for cutting the BPT but not eliminating it. Though he couldn't answer a question of when will the BPT be cut enough if it still fails to create jobs.

I still think Knox wins by chipping away at the white vote in ne philly and fattah chipping away at the black vote.

It's a shame the best candidate is Evans. I'm voting for Knox. But a Nutter win could be the first step of a promising future for race in our city and this country should the poll hold true.

by Erik 2007-05-09 03:20PM | 0 recs
Re: Nutter surge bodes well for Obama

I know you like Nutter, Chris, but he's really very conservative economically which explains why, even last year when he was polling in the single digits, he was raising big bucks from law firms, financial firms, real estate brokers and developers.  That allowed him to go on the air fairly early and parlay his ethics work into a major populist surge.  But people in the City don't necessarily know what they're getting since he's downplayed his economic message and none of the other candidates have successfully pointed out his Reaganesque tax cutting philosophy.  The alliance between business and the reform populists may not last long.  And whether it does or not, Nutter's formula shuold certainly  not be viewed as a model of how progressives in general should look to win elections.

Also, just as a factual matter, Nutter has gotten a wide range of support.  However that includes not a single union, nor the support of Neighborhood Networks, a social justice oriented reform group which has remained neutral.  The local Chapter of NOW has also failed to endorse a candidate.

by Stan Shapiro 2007-05-09 04:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Nutter surge bodes well for Obama
"Also, just as a factual matter, Nutter has gotten a wide range of support. However that includes not a single union, nor the support of Neighborhood Networks, a social justice oriented reform group which has remained neutral. The local Chapter of NOW has also failed to endorse a candidate."
B<r> As a factual matter, I noted in my post that he received the endorsement of every progressive / reform group that made an endorsement. And I never once stated that he had any union support.

"That allowed him to go on the air fairly early and parlay his ethics work into a major populist surge."

Speaking of factual matters, of the five candidates on the air, Nutter was fourth to go on the air. Being second to last isn't "fairly early." The only candidate who went on the air later than him was Fattah. And if a candidate starts out ahead by 15%, as Fattah did, and has $1,000 a plate fundraisers with both Clinton and Obama in October, as Fattah did for his congressional account, but still doesn't have enough money to go on the air until after every other candidate does, then well, cry me a river about fundraising. Fattah raised $1.1M for his congressional account in 2005-2006, including $146K from business PACs, despite being in the third safest seat in the entire country. He can clearly raise money, including raising money from business groups. That he decided not to do so for his mayoral campaign back in October, and has struggled since then, is his own fault.
by Chris Bowers 2007-05-09 05:10PM | 0 recs
Re: Nutter surge bodes well for Obama

Hey Chris, when you get the chance, could you respond to some of Stan Shapiro's other points?  I'm not a philly voter any more (though I suppose I influence a few) and am undecided on the candidates so far, but I notice that a few people have echoed some of SS's points, particularly about the economic pro-tax-cut/pro-business stuff.  If you've already presented your take on this as a progressive in a different post, that's of course enough, I'll try to dig it up.  Thanks.

by brackdurf 2007-05-09 06:16PM | 0 recs
Reminds Me of Minneapolis - 2001

Entrenched establishment mayor defeated by upstart progressive outsider.  

The problem was that the new reform mayor won the election without really defining himself, other than being a reform candidate and not a machine candidate.  His subsequent administration has been less progressive than you might have guessed from his rhetoric (although in fairness budget problems have severely constrained the city's policy options).  

Post-election, it's impossible to maintain a diverse coalition like this - at some point he's going to have to pick which interests to pursue, business or progressive.  If he keeps trying to please everyone, he will please no one.  

by gregabbott 2007-05-09 04:45PM | 0 recs
Re: Reminds Me of Minneapolis - 2001

Reminded me of the last Portland mayoral, in which the establishment candidate was crushed by an outsider candidate.  But I was out in the burbs at the time, so I didn't pay a lot of attention.

by jallen 2007-05-09 05:17PM | 0 recs
Congratulations

We need something like that in Prince George's County.

When the government is corrupt and ineffective then you can form a seventy percent coalition from the progressives to small business owners.

by Hellmut 2007-05-09 05:08PM | 0 recs
A bit knee-jerk ne?

"Apparently, when established powers tell me that something can't be done, out of pure spite I immediately want to try and demonstrate that said powers are wrong."

As long as you retain enough objectivity to examine whether or not the established powers are right or not I'm find with it though.

by MNPundit 2007-05-09 05:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging; Open

It'll be pretty damn exciting if Nutter wins. One, more mojo for the Penn Dems, who endorsed Nutter back when he was behind everyone else; it'll be fun to rejoin an organization that will have a lot of goodwill in the local Democratic arena come fall. Second, even though I've been too busy to follow this race with any great attention, the other 3 candidates aside from Nutter who have been getting attention never struck me well. Brady was a no-go from the beginning; I never warmed to Fattah because I think he should stay in the House, I'm not enamored with his plan to lease the airport, and he's done nothing for the Penn Dems; and Knox - I just get a Bloomberg vibe from him. I don't like people who throw money at the television for the sole purpose of getting their poll numbers up.

Anyways, bon chance to Philadelphians on the 15th. Whoever gets elected has to get crime under control.

by PsiFighter37 2007-05-09 06:25PM | 0 recs
Philadelphia Mayor:

So what do you guys think this change in Philly "politics as usual" will mean for the city. I hope it helps to create a better business climate and reduces the crime. With Phillys location, history, and relatively low cost of living, that city should be siphoning businesses left and right from DC and New York City.

by NOLAUSA 2007-05-09 08:17PM | 0 recs
Sounds like normal... to a Westerner.

Here in the West we expect honest and service-oriented city governments. We don't have the inevitable machine tradition, or neighborhoods with deep-seated ethnic cohesiveness, we don't even have much political conflict between black-white interests. We're seeing a lot of people moving back into the cities. Even our public schools in urban settings are often quite good (some flight to schools, but not like suburban Maryland.

So, the way you describe Nutter, good-government, providing city-services, support for business community strikes me as pretty darned normal. Perhaps the active phrase is "modern city governance".

I've only passed through Philly one time, years ago, but I lived in Boston a while back. I suspect that the old, multi-generational ethnic neighborhoods and the ward-system just aren't as tight as they used to be. Is Philly seeing significant impact from the younger, new-urbanism movement, the so-called high-tech or "creative class" like so many other cities? How about stable, middle-class neighborhoods and condo developments for city loving empty nesters?

Cities are improving across the country, wherever the economy is doing reasonably well.

by MetaData 2007-05-09 10:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Philadelphia Mayor: Nutter Still Surging

My read on the Nutter surge is simple... there were three highly qualified black candidates in the primary who were likely to split the black vote in the city, and hand Knox a win.  The moment that Nutter showed a surge in the polls, he became the "stop Knox" candidate.

Personally, I was hoping for a Fattah win -- but given the current state of the race, I'll wind up voting for Nutter.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the race is Brady's complete failure to deal with the Knox threat early on.   Sure, there were ethical questions surrounding Brady, but that has seldom proved an inmpedimetn to other candidates in Philadelphia.  Knox -- a self-financed but virtually unknown candidate -- went on the air early, and Brady simply did not respond, apparently relying upon his ostensible control of the Philadelphia machine to take out Knox.  That obviously isn't happening (although I suspect that Brady will show much better in the primary than his current numbers suggest.)

by p lukasiak 2007-05-10 03:55AM | 0 recs

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