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May 14, 2007

In the Philadelphia Mayoral Race, Will It Be Nutter to the Rescue?

 

This Tuesday, voters in America's fifth-largest city, Philadelphia, will go to the polls to elect a new mayor to succeed term-limited incumbent John Street. Five candidates are running, all seeking to fix a city with many, many problems.

 

It's been a bizarre election, as just about all Philly mayoral contests are. The campaign features two highly respected longtime public servants (Michael Nutter and Dwight Evans), a pair of long-entrenched establishment candidates (Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady) who are both sitting U.S. Congressmen, and a wealthy businessman (Tom Knox) who is running with the Michael Bloomberg-like rationale that he can't be bought off by special interests, because he's so rich he doesn't need their money.

 

Even the mayor's Roger Clinton-like brother, Milton Street, briefly joined the race, despite not living in Philadelphia and being under federal indictment. Street dropped out of the race in April, only to jump into a city council race against his own nephew, the mayor's son Sharif Street. (All five candidates are Democrats. Unlike Street's two races against GOP businessman Sam Katz, the winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary will essentially have a clear path to Room 215.) 

 

Days before the election, the race remains wide-open, although Nutter and Knox have emerged as what passes for frontrunners. Knox used an early and substantial ad buy to put across his candidacy and build an early lead, using his brief, long-ago service as a deputy mayor to popular mayor-turned-Governor Ed Rendell much the same way John Kerry used his brief, long-ago Vietnam service in the 2004 campaign.

 

Nutter is the most intriguing candidate. A Penn graduate who served for years on the City Council before resigning in order to run for mayor, he has vowed to clean up corruption, push a new anti-crime strategy and take the city in a direction different from the complacency that has marked Street's time in office.

 

The candidate has appeal across racial lines, which is both a blessing and a curse.

 

While it would certainly help him as mayor, Nutter faces a problem regularly encountered by successful African-Americans in the public eye one also faced by Barack Obama and another Philadelphia luminary, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: He is too black for some whites, yet not black enough for some blacks.

 

Fattah, for what it's worth, exploited this in a recent televised debate. After Nutter said he understands the issue of racial profiling because he has "been black for 49 years," Fattah responded with the cheap shot of cheap shots: "I'm sorry the councilman has to remind himself he's an African American."

 

Whoever is elected will face quite a challenge. Take all of the problems brilliantly captured on HBO's urban saga "The Wire," transport them about 100 miles up I-95 from Baltimore to Philly, and you have the City of Brotherly Love today. Corrupt government? Out-of-control crime? Ineffectual institutions? Racial tension? David Simon was clearly on to something.

 

Crime is skyrocketing, with the city averaging more than a murder a day and the political and police leadership essentially throwing up its hands and saying they can't do anything about it. Drug gangs run rampant, and a recent epidemic of student-on-teacher violence in the city's schools has made headlines nationwide.

 

Corruption is a big problem as well, with a pay-to-play culture ruling City Hall. The recent corruption indictments of city councilman Rick Mariano (who was convicted) and State Senator and longtime South Philly political boss Vince Fumo (facing more than 100 fraud and conspiracy charges) have done little to stem the tide.

 

The gleaming Center City section and beautiful new sports stadiums notwithstanding, blight is affecting more and more areas of the city, to the point where the mayor of New Orleans New Orleans! recently visited and proclaimed Philly dirtier than his own city. Even City Hall itself is a crumbling monstrosity, about 40 years overdue for a major makeover.

 

For my adopted hometown of Philadelphia to begin a citywide recovery, it needs a mayor committed to ending the culture corruption at City Hall, the carnage in the streets and racial tension throughout. Michael Nutter is clearly the best man for the job, but even if he wins, fixing up Philly clearly will not be easy.

 

2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.

 

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