This weekend, Philly newspapers addressed a question that’s become unavoidable: Has Mayor Michael Nutter become a lame duck?
The question follows the mayor’s failed attempt to convince City Council to pass the Actual Value Initiative. The legislative body didn’t reject the overhaul of Philly’s property-tax system that Nutter was banking on to bring in an extra $94 million for schools, but it delayed it a year. The AVI breakdown is the most recent of several mayoral failures, including two unsuccessful attempts to pass a soda tax.
As his second term wears on, the mayor is more likely to lose clout than gain it. Calling Nutter a lame duck, though, may be giving him a pass. It almost implies he’s up against some force of nature, a black hole from whose pull no term-limited politician can escape.
But not so fast. Nutter has, it’s true, come up against powerful forces of resistance within City Council and elsewhere. But politics is the art of com-promise, diplomacy, concession. In fighting for the sugar-sweetened-beverage tax, Nutter was up against a powerful soda lobby — but also alienated allies within Council when he incorrectly assumed he had the nine votes needed to pass the tax. He fumed, according to inside accounts, as those votes dissipated, withdrawing from negotiations for hours before the final vote took place without him.
Shortly before the AVI vote, state legislators blasted the mayor for assuming they’d help out with enabling legislation without having talked to them. Wounded egos? Sure, but the mayor must also be masseur. And, during the two — not one, but two — weeks when the AVI vote came to a head, Nutter was out of town, hanging out with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which he was just elected president. He jetted back to Philly to negotiate again at the last minute. Councilman James Kenney, often an ally, reported that Nutter’s pitch had been “You have to pass this.” When the vote went the other way, Nutter jetted back to his conference.
Even in matters that don’t require Council, the mayor has sometimes been stymied by his own tin ear. Take his hasty ban on outdoor feeding of the homeless, a plan whose sloppiness became apparent over a matter of weeks as the mayor lost the support of leading homeless advocate Sister Mary Scullion, declined to enforce his own ban and drew a federal lawsuit. Meanwhile, the mayor’s call for more indoor meals seemed to vaporize quietly.
Being a lame duck is, for a term-limit-bound politician, an inevitability — but not an excuse.