City Journal

Ethan Epstein
One Tough Nutter
Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor has cracked down on crime, reformed the city’s finances, and spoken frankly about black family breakdown.
Spring 2013
Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
Mayor Michael Nutter did equally well in white and black wards in his first race. He was recently reelected in a landslide.

In the hot summer of 2011, Philadelphia was beset by “flash mobs.” Dozens of teenagers, mostly black, would gather suddenly and riot through popular tourist neighborhoods, assaulting pedestrians and robbing stores and people. Other cities experienced flash mobs in 2011, but they presented a particular problem for tourist-dependent Philadelphia, where millions of visitors come every year to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Franklin Court—not to mention the famous corner of Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue, where Pat’s and Geno’s vie for cheesesteak supremacy.

Mayor Michael Nutter, a black Democrat who had governed the city since 2008, was not pleased. And so, one Sunday that August, he took to the pulpit at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and launched into an impassioned, 25-minute speech, punctuated by cheers and applause from the pews. “This nonsense must stop,” he said, his voice rising. “If you want to act like a butthead, your butt is going to get locked up. And if you want to act like an idiot, move. Move out of this city. We don’t want you here any more.” Nutter grew increasingly heated as he blasted the city’s absentee fathers—who, he implied, were responsible for the crimes that their children committed. And he wound up his speech by telling the flash mobbers: “You’ve damaged your own race.”

Leftist critics quickly lit into the mayor. Columbia University political scientist Frederick Harris even used the R-word: “If this discourse was led by Ronald Reagan, for instance, people would call him on his racism, but now that you have a black face to these explanations it gives it legitimacy.”

But Nutter didn’t stop at rhetoric; he threw the weight of the Philadelphia Police Department against the rioters. In mob-afflicted areas, he ramped up police patrols and imposed a weekend curfew of 9 PM for minors. Backing up his tough talk on absentee parents, he increased fines on the parents of kids repeatedly caught breaking curfew, from $300 to $500. Local judges pitched in, sentencing flash mobbers to hefty service terms instead of slapping them on the wrist. Ten first-time offenders who had raided a Macy’s, for example, had to work there for eight weeks, dressing mannequins and greeting shoppers.

It seems to have worked. In the summer of 2012, there were no flash mobs in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer applauded the city’s “amazing progress,” noting correctly that “sometimes news is what doesn’t happen.” But it isn’t the only news that Michael Nutter has made in Philadelphia. On many counts, he has racked up an impressive record governing America’s fifth-largest city, showing a way forward at a time when so many Democratic-run cities seem resigned to deterioration.

In 2005, Time dubbed Nutter’s predecessor, John Street, one of America’s “worst mayors.” Though Street himself was never charged with any crime, his administration, which lasted from 2000 to 2008, was infused with scandal. His city treasurer, Corey Kemp, was convicted of 27 counts of corruption, including accepting Super Bowl tickets and cash in exchange for city contracts, and sentenced to ten years in prison. Leonard Ross, Street’s former law partner and the chairman of a committee responsible for developing some city property, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for, among other crimes, asking developers bidding for a lucrative contract to donate money to Street’s reelection campaign. Street’s friend and fund-raiser Ron White was also charged with corruption, accused of (again, among other things) obtaining a city printing contract for his girlfriend, who didn’t even own a printing company. (White died before he went to trial.) Ultimately, more than two dozen figures connected to Street’s administration were convicted on corruption-related charges. Street also presided over a spike in the crime rate, as murders hit a seven-year high.

Philadelphia mayors aren’t allowed to serve more than two consecutive terms, and the race to succeed Street was crowded. Candidates in the 2007 Democratic primary included Tom Knox, a self-funded businessman; Bob Brady, a U.S. congressman whose campaign was badly wounded when he failed to disclose his pension income on his nominating petition; Chaka Fattah, another congressman and an old-school urban Democrat who had angered the Philadelphia Police Department by repeatedly calling for a new trial for convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal; and Nutter, who ran on a tough-on-crime, pro-reform platform. Nutter was an appealing candidate. Raised in working-class West Philly, he had attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and worked briefly in investment banking before winning a seat on the city council in 1991.

Nutter was emblematic of black success in Philadelphia, where African-Americans make up 43 percent of the population (whites are 37 percent and Hispanics 12 percent). But his candidacy had widespread appeal. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time, “Nutter did equally well in majority-white and majority-black wards” and “got the largest percentage of white votes ever cast for an African American in a Philadelphia mayoral primary.” Nutter won a plurality in the primary, virtually guaranteeing him a general-election victory in this heavily Democratic city. Four years later, he was reelected in landslides in both the primary and the election.

One of Nutter’s first moves as mayor-elect in late 2007 was to lure Charles Ramsey out of retirement and make him the city’s new police commissioner. As the police chief of Washington, D.C., from 1998 to 2006, Ramsey had overseen a stunning 40 percent reduction in crime by employing both community policing and the data-based policing that New York City’s Compstat program had made famous.

Ramsey imported both approaches to Philadelphia. Central to his and Nutter’s policing strategy was getting more cops into dangerous neighborhoods, particularly on foot. When he took office, Nutter had high hopes of hiring an additional 500 patrol officers. But then the economy tanked and scuttled the plan, says Everett Gillison, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for public safety and Nutter’s chief of staff. Instead, the administration shifted about 200 officers from other units into patrol work. It also began requiring all police rookies to work foot beats for their first two years. At approximately one officer per 450 citizens, Philadelphia is still less densely policed than Washington. But the personnel changes, combined with data-based policing techniques that direct officers to the communities that need them most, ensure a healthy police presence where it’s necessary.

Another important component of the city’s crime-fighting strategy is stop-and-frisk, the controversial practice of searching suspicious persons for weapons to forestall crime. The Philadelphia Police Department had already used stop-and-frisk prior to Nutter’s election, but he campaigned on ramping it up, and under his mayoralty, the practice has been greatly expanded. In 2005, there were about 100,000 stops; by 2009, there were more than 250,000.

Nutter’s administration has also implemented a program, coined PhillyRising, based on the Broken Windows theory of policing, which holds that maintaining basic order stems serious crime. The idea is to use data gathered by police officers in dangerous neighborhoods to improve the quality of life—say, by repairing broken streetlights or cleaning filthy alleys after residents complain to cops on the beat. In 2012, Nutter summed up his overall law enforcement strategy: “We combined a zero tolerance attitude toward those who terrorize our neighborhoods with a community policing approach that built trust and a sense of partnership between citizens and the men and women whose job it is to protect us.”

That strategy has drawn predictable criticism from the Left. In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued Nutter’s administration over its use of stop-and-frisk, pointing out that blacks constituted 72 percent of those stopped and frisked even though they were just 44 percent of Philadelphia’s population at the time. Nutter vehemently denied that stop-and-frisk was racially biased: “It’s based on geography and nothing else.” The ACLU had neglected to mention that, as Gillison notes, “80 percent of homicides are black-on-black” in Philadelphia. Indeed, that statistic implied that blacks were being stopped and frisked less frequently than they should have been.

Nutter, again, is black (as are Ramsey and Gillison), and he’s particularly passionate about black crime, disturbed not only that young black men commit a disproportionate amount of crime but that they’re disproportionately its victims. Last year, he teamed up with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to found Cities United, a program devoted to reducing violence among young black men. Philadelphia is the largest American city with a black mayor, Nutter points out, and he thinks that gives him a special responsibility to combat the scourge.

In 2011, the city and the ACLU reached an agreement in which the cops would collect and store more data about stop-and-frisk incidents. Nutter’s administration also agreed to allow more judicial oversight of the practice and to create a system letting citizens lodge complaints more easily. But stop-and-frisk remained, a major victory for Nutter’s vision of a safer Philadelphia.

One element of the mayor’s stance on crime has taken flak from the Right as well: his advocacy of gun control. But Nutter is hardly calling for an unconstitutional “gun grab”: he’s been most vocal about improving background checks to screen gun buyers for criminal histories, as well as increasing penalties for so-called straw buyers (who purchase guns on behalf of others) and those who own illegal weapons. Moreover, the mayor’s most intrusive form of gun control is, well, stop-and-frisk. As City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald has pointed out in the New York Times, “one purpose of stop and frisk is to deter criminals from carrying guns, in order to minimize spur-of-the-moment shootings.” Nutter has said expressly that he’s trying to keep lethal weapons out of criminals’ hands: “We must pursue actively, vigorously, aggressively, every illegal weapon out on the street. No one should walk around the city of Philadelphia thinking for a moment that a well-trained uniformed police officer is not going to take an illegal weapon away from them.”

Is Nutter’s strategy working? In 2007, the last year before he took office, there were 391 murders in Philadelphia. Last year, there were 331. But the figures aren’t as simple as they look: in 2009, murders plummeted to 302, and they’ve been ticking up slowly ever since, to 306 in 2010, 324 in 2011, and (again) 331 in 2012. That’s doubtless one reason that Gillison and others in the administration prefer to cite another statistic: in 2012, Philadelphia had its lowest number of shootings since 2000, the first year the city started tracking that crime. Since Nutter took office in 2008, shootings have declined by about 20 percent. Over the same period, total violent crime has fallen 15.8 percent and property crime 7.2 percent.

Straight Talk

I want to apologize to all the good, hardworking, caring people here in this city, and especially our good young people, here in Philadelphia. But I have to tell you this morning that I am forced by the stupid, ignorant, dumb actions of a few [to] announce tomorrow actions that we will take that, unfortunately, will affect many here in our city.

Parents, get your act together. Get it together. Get it together right now. You need to get hold of your kids before we have to. Parents who neglect their children, who don’t know where they are, who don’t know what they’re doing, who don’t know who they’re hanging out with: You’re gonna find yourselves spending some quality time with your kids, in jail, together. . . .

Fathers have a particularly important role to play. Not more important than mothers, but just as important. You know, you’re not a father just because you have a kid, or two, or three. That doesn’t make you a father. A father is a person who’s around, participating in a child’s life. He’s a teacher who helps to guide and shape and mold that young person, someone for that young person to talk to, to share with, their ups and their downs, their fears and their concerns. A father has to provide instruction to a young boy on how to become a good man. A good man. A father also has to be a good role model and help a young girl be a strong woman.

Now let me just say this: if you’re not doing those things—if you’re just hanging out out there, maybe you’re sending a check or bringing some cash by—that’s not being a father. You’re just a human ATM. You’re just an ATM. And if you’re not providing the guidance and you’re not sending any money, you’re just a sperm donor. You’re just a sperm donor. You’re what the girls call out in the street: “That’s my baby-daddy. That’s my baby-daddy.” That’s not good enough. Don’t be that. Don’t be that. You can do better than that.

And you know something? That’s part of the problem in our community. Let me speak plain: that’s part of the problem in the black community. And many other communities, but a particular problem in the black communities: we have too many men making too many babies that they don’t want to take care of and then we end up dealing with your children. We’re not running a big babysitting service. We’re running a big government and a great city. Take care of your children. All of them. All of them.

Mayor Michael Nutter
Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Philadelphia
August 7, 2011

Crime may seem like Philadelphia’s toughest challenge, but you could make the case that its budget woes are even worse. Nutter took office just as the economy was bottoming out, hammering tax revenues. The city’s $4 billion budget had a $100 million deficit, which the new mayor attributed to “a dramatic decline in tax receipts and increased pension costs.” The future looked even grimmer: over five years, the city faced a cumulative budget gap of more than $1 billion.

Nutter took swift action, announcing furlough days for city workers, canceling bonuses for nonunion workers, laying off several hundred employees, and eliminating hundreds more through attrition. He also cut his own salary and those of his cabinet members. And he announced plans to shutter 11 public libraries, though he was forced to abandon that proposal after a public outcry and objections from the city council. To get the budget under control, Nutter didn’t just cut spending; he hiked the local sales tax by 1 percentage point (though the increase is scheduled to expire in 2015).

That move galled many who had listened to Nutter’s calls for tax relief during the mayoral campaign. Back when he was a city councilman, one of his signature issues had been tax cuts; several cuts that he authored had been vetoed by Street. This year, moreover, a rejiggering of the city’s property-tax system will probably raise taxes further for many Philadelphians. But Nutter has managed to close the deficit. During the fiscal year that ended last June, the city ran a $147 million surplus. This year, it expects another surplus, though a smaller one.

Philadelphia’s fiscal problems go deeper than its budget, however. Even in a country where scores of cities face unaffordable retirement costs for their workers, Philly stands out: its pension fund is more than 50 percent unfunded, and there are more retirees drawing paychecks than current workers paying into the system. Earlier this year, a Pew Charitable Trusts study ranked Philadelphia among the country’s nine worst-performing cities in terms of pension funding between 2007 and 2009.

To get out of the morass, Nutter has proposed a new contract with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents about 6,800 of Philadelphia’s 20,000 public employees. AFSCME’s last contract expired in 2009, and years of negotiation with Nutter have failed to produce a new one. Under the mayor’s latest proposal, current workers would remain on the defined-benefit retirement plan that they have today, though their pension contributions would grow from 1.93 percent of their salaries to 3 percent. New hires, however, would get a hybrid pension plan. The defined benefits that they’d receive during retirement would equal no more than 25 percent of their final salaries; the rest of their pension contributions (and the city’s) would pay for a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan, with individual investment accounts for each worker. The mayor would also receive the authority to furlough employees for up to three weeks a year, and certain perks, such as double-time pay, would be phased out. In exchange for these concessions, workers would get pay increases, which they’ve done without over the three and a half years that they’ve been working without a contract.

AFSCME’s leadership refused the contract proposal. Saying that the pay increases were canceled out by the threat of furloughs and the loss of overtime pay, the union objected that Nutter’s plan amounted to “patting workers on the back with one hand . . . while picking their pockets with the other hand.” Dubbing him a “mayor for the 1 percent,” the union staged a protest outside a Washington meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (which Nutter leads) earlier this year. In February, AFSCME’s national president labeled Nutter a “turncoat” and likened him to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, even though Nutter, unlike Walker, hasn’t tried to limit collective bargaining for public workers.

Fed up with the years of endless negotiating, Nutter took matters into his own hands this February, filing suit at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and seeking permission simply to impose the new contract’s terms on the union. Shrewdly, the mayor cast the suit as pro–union member but anti–union boss. The bosses reacted predictably, blasting Nutter’s decision to appeal to a “Republican-controlled” court. The court has yet to hear the case.

Nutter’s administration has also been duking it out with the city’s 2,100-strong firefighters’ union. The city and the union entered arbitration in both 2010 and 2012, with the latest round awarding the firefighters annual raises of 3 percent for three years (retroactive to 2010). The arbitration also banned unpaid furloughs and required the city to make larger payments for the firefighters’ health care. All in all, the results of the arbitration are expected to cost more than $200 million over the next five years—money that the city simply doesn’t have, Nutter says. His administration is appealing the latest ruling, hoping to get more authority to furlough firefighters and reduce the health-care payments. In Nutter’s first term, arbitration with the police and prison guards’ unions ended much more favorably, significantly reducing pension and health-care costs for the city.

It’s not only on union issues that Nutter’s economic policies have impressed. He’s also worked to make Philadelphia more hospitable for entrepreneurs, cutting several taxes on businesses and vetoing a bill, beloved by the Left, that would have required private enterprises to provide paid sick days to their workers. “I care a great deal about paid sick leave, but I care even more about people getting paid,” Nutter explained. “People need jobs, and that’s our Number One priority.” The city’s unemployment rate is still high, at 10.1 percent, though it’s down from 11.5 percent in 2010.

At an address this February to black male students at the Community College of Philadelphia, Nutter’s retro-style cultural outlook was on full display. He acknowledged the toll that Jim Crow and generations of discrimination had taken on the black community; he took a few shots at Ronald Reagan for cutting financial aid to college students. But he took pains to note that today, “the only folks who kill black folks any more are black folks.” In fact, he said, “black folks kill more black folks than the KKK ever did.” Regarding black unemployment, he was equally stern: if you want to get a job, make sure you’re speaking “an understandable form of the English language.”

This in a speech delivered at a Black History Month event! In a culture that often attributes crime to material conditions, Nutter speaks with a refreshing moralism. Granted, that moralism can go much too far and veer into authoritarianism; in March, Nutter wrote to the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission to criticize a magazine article about “being white in Philadelphia,” calling it “disgusting” and suggesting that the magazine might be due for a “rebuke.” But Nutter was right, after a horrific triple shooting last year left three teenagers dead in Philadelphia’s Juniata neighborhood, to declare, “If you want to be an idiot, if you want to be an asshole, if you want to be a lowlife in this town, we will track you down like the dog that you are.” There’s something bracing about seeing someone in a position of authority in the city speak with such moral clarity.

Indeed, in many ways, Nutter is a conservative. Of course, he doesn’t identify himself that way, and it’s not hard to deduce why: in 59 Philadelphia precincts last November, Mitt Romney won precisely zero votes. And Nutter isn’t a Republican-in-hiding, having spent much of the 2012 election season appearing on TV as a campaign surrogate for President Obama. But don’t forget that in the bitter Democratic presidential primary in 2008, Nutter endorsed Hillary Clinton, then viewed as the centrist alternative to Obama.

And what would you call a mayor with priorities like Nutter’s—law and order, fiscal prudence, and personal responsibility—if not conservative?

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