Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Michael Nutter will (probably) be the next mayor of Philadelphia

I spent much of the last four of five years covering Philadelphia government. I got to know mayor John Street pretty well, and I got to know members of the city council too. For about three years I attended most of Council's regular Thursday meetings, and I sat just a few feet away from Michael Nutter, whose desk was closest to the press table.

He's smart, he's funny (in a dry, sarcastic kind of way that can get on some people's nerves), and generally he'd been considered pretty boring. He probably understands the workings of city government better than anybody. But he doesn't always play well with others. Some of the legislation he's worked on that he's gotten the most credit for, like ethics reform and a citywide smoking ban, he practically accomplished through sheer force of will. He pushed and pushed and pushed until others saw his way instead of spending his time making deals. Somewhat surprisingly, he eventually won on most of those bills.

The funny thing is, he's been one of John Street's most vocal opponents. And other than the sense of humor and monotonous speaking style, that last paragraph could just easily describe Street, who has had a contentious relationship with the city council for the last few years. So it'll be interesting to see if Nutter does a better job of playing with others as mayor.

Nutter picked up more than 35% of the vote (the last numbers I saw said about 38%) in last night's Democratic primary, which in a five way race is pretty close to a landslide. Given that Democrats outnumber Republicans by four to one in Philadelphia, and given that Republican nominee Al Taubenberger has just a few hundred dollars in his bank account, Nutter will probably be elected mayor in the fall.

On the campaign trail, he's learned to get some fire in his belly. He speaks much more passionately about the city than he once did. And while he's still master of the arcane aspects of city law and tax policy, he talks about bigger issues like violence and corruption and education. And perhaps most importantly, he's found a way to humanize himself. In a recent poll, voters say he had some of the most memorable ads. And last night while I was at Tom Knox headquarters, I heard a few people say this is the ad that won him the election.

We're moving to Brooklyn this weekend. And I'm kind of glad that one of my last Philadelphia jobs was helping out with WHYY election night coverage. For the past 7 years I've been reporting out of Philadelphia. It's where I learned to be a journalist. I sort of grew up as a reporter with the Street administration. Some of the first stories I filed for National Public Radio were on the 2003 FBI investigation, and I won a Sigma Delta Chi award from the national Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on the scandal and the election that year.

I spent last night covering the election night headquarters of Dwight Evans and Tom Knox. Evans had been coming in a distant fifth place on recent polls, so the priority was Knox, who was in second place when the most recent poll was released last week. But a lot can change in a week, and more importantly, Knox and Evans were in hotels across the street from one another. So it was easy to go to both.

Anyway, I walked into the Marriott where Evans was set up, and I didn't even have to find the official party. I ran into the state representative while he was shaking voters' hands at the bar on the first floor. I asked him a few quick questions like "how do you feel about the race? If you win, what will be the first things you do? If maybe by some chance you don't win..." he didn't want to answer the last one. Nobody ever does.

Actually, scratch that. I think I managed to get one Congressional candidate to answer that question once. Thing is, when you're working for an understaffed newsroom, you can't afford to send reporters to cover every candidate. And if you've got to cover two candidates, there's pretty much no chance of catching both of their victory/concession speeches. So you try to get tape when you can.

Anyway, by the time 61% of the vote was counted, there was a pretty clear trend. Former City Councilman Michael Nutter was on top, Knox in second, Democratic Party chair Bob Brady was in third, Congressman Chaka Fattah in fourth, and Evans still in a distant fifth.

Knox came out a few minutes later, saying he'd called Michael Nutter to congratulate him. He said he was pleased that the top two vote getters were "reform" candidates, in that they each promised to push ethics reform in city government.

Knox had been running as the political outsider who was going to clean house in a city hall that had been plagued by corruption scandals since an FBI investigation was discovered during the last mayoral election in 2003. Nutter had been instrumental in writing new ethics legislation and backing campaign finance limits while he was on city council.

Knox said if he didn't win, he was glad it was Nutter, and "thank God it wasn't Bob Brady!" The crowd ate that up. He said he didn't believe Brady, the party insider would be a voice for change in city government.

It probably doesn't help that while all of the candidates attacked Knox when he was a frontrunner earlier in the campaign (He'd put $10 million of his own money into the campaign, and it's hard to catch up to that), Brady was one of his most vocal opponents. At one debate, Brady took a swipe at the fact that Knox had owned a bank involved in payday lending, or what critics call "predatory lending." Brady said something to the effect of "we're trying to help people. He's hurt people. I only hope that whoever is elected mayor can help as many people as he has hurt."

On a side note, I was able to use my Zoom H-4 flash recorder and my new laptop on election night. I set up the Zoom as an audio transport, meaning it acted like an external sound card for my PC. I plugged cable into the Knox's mult box, and ran it to my minidisc recorder. Then I ran a line from my minidisc recorder to the H-4, which was connected to my PC.

Now I could record the concession speech in Cool Edit while it was happening, which is even faster than recording it on a flash card and transferring it to the PC. If Cool Edit or my computer crashed, the minidisc recorder was running a backup copy. Technically, the sound quality might have degraded a little since I was routing sound through the minidisc first, but the truth of the matter is that there was an awful electrical buzz on the mult box, and I wasn't going to get great sound no matter what.

As soon as Knox was done speaking, I grabbed my Zoom H-4, switched it over to mic mode and joined a gaggle of reporters asking him questions. The sound quality of this 5 minute exchange was far better, and I wound up using several quotes of Knox both on stage and off.

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