“I can’t figure it out, I really can’t,” Michael Nutter told me Tuesday after our latest Ultimate Job Interview mayoral event, in front of nearly 400 super-engaged citizens at the Fitler Club. I had just remarked to him that not one of the candidates thus far had established him or herself as the candidate of change by running against sad sack lame duck Jim Kenney.
Of course, to the uninitiated, that would seem like folly: Why run against someone prevented by the Home Rule Charter from seeking reelection? Jim Kenney is not on the ballot.
But only ostensibly, as Nutter knows all too well. Back in 2007, Nutter was in last place in the polls in a crowded mayoral field; the frontrunners were Chaka Fattah, a then-respected Congressman (soon to be sent away on a long federal vacation), and millionaire Tom Knox, whose background and understanding of City government had yet to undergo serious scrutiny.
When Nutter ultimately pulled off the upset and became the city’s 98th mayor, much credit was given to a commercial narrated by his adorable daughter, Olivia. But the truth is that Nutter — the race’s good government reformer — began his climb out of the cellar before that. Insiders had wondered if he and his messaging guru Neil Oxman had finally lost it when they aired an ad positioning Nutter as the alternative to the sitting, term-limited Mayor John Street: He’s running against someone who is not even on the ballot?
But polls had shown Street to be unpopular at the time and, in a crowded field of candidates all arguing against one another, Nutter had cleverly made himself the candidate of change. His poll numbers started to rise, and then they took off after his daughter’s ad described him as “pretty cool for an old guy.”
When, I wondered the other night, would someone in this crop of candidates follow the Nutter playbook? “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s sitting right there for them.” Think of it: We have an incumbent mayor who has publicly professed his wish to no longer hold the job. Doesn’t the ad kinda write itself?
Well, today, there it is on our TV screens. Allan Domb has concluded that Jim Kenney is what Philadelphians want a change from. Domb dropped this commercial, opening with Kenney’s remarks last July 4 — “I’ll be happy when I’m not Mayor and I can enjoy some stuff” — and ending with Domb saying, “Enough of that. I’m Allan Domb, and I can’t wait to be your Mayor.”
In between, Domb strikes a hopeful tone, in sharp contrast to Kenney’s dourness. “We can improve our schools,” he says. “We can create jobs. And, yes, we can get crime under control.”
I texted Domb after learning of and seeing the ad. “This isn’t personal,” Domb replied. “The biggest crisis Philadelphia faces is a lack of leadership. We need a mayor who wants the job and is ready to lead.”
To be fair, Kenney kinda, sorta apologized for his July 4 remarks, which some of us saw as an indication that the Mayor had quit on the city he’d sworn to lead. Others, including Kenney, argued that he’d simply spoken out of a sense of frustration at the scene of a shooting, and it would be unfair to draw further conclusions from one bad soundbite.
But here’s what makes Domb’s ad so powerful: Kenney continues to be utterly disengaged. On January 10, he held a press conference and the Inquirer covered it in a story headlined: “Philly Mayor Jim Kenney vows a reset at the beginning of his last year in office: ‘We’re still dedicated.’”
The story quoted the mayor professing his love for his job, but if you actually watched the press conference, you saw a man musing at the 39-minute mark about what he’d do after he’s done serving as mayor. As he underscored at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce luncheon this week, he talked about wanting to work with kids, about how, when he was a student at St. Joe’s Prep, he’d been taken to the ballet and that exposure opened up his world view. He wants to similarly provide those kind of eye-widening opportunities when he’s out of office.
In fact, in an effort to illustrate such post-mayoral interests, he said he’d just visited a STEM-focused pre-K classroom in which he asked the teacher if she’d taken the kids to the Franklin Institute or Academy of Natural Sciences. Let him take it from there: “She says, ‘No, we don’t really have the money for those kinds of trips.’ That’s the kind of thing I’d like to fund to get those kids that kind of experience.”
Seriously? You’ll never have more power to help those kids than right now, as Mayor. It’s great that you were touched by seeing those children in their pre-K classroom; now pick up the phone and call someone in your employ and get them to the Franklin Institute pronto.
This is what makes Domb’s ad so timely: Jim Kenney doesn’t see himself as having that power, because, on some level in his mind, he’s already done being mayor.
Why hasn’t anyone yet followed the Nutter 2007 model? In a crowded field, candidates with high-priced consultants in their ears tend to fear standing out. That’s why only Derek Green has unambiguously said he will not retain Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw; few want to step out there, particularly when Black women comprise such a vital voting block. Just this week, the Inquirer editorial board polled the candidates as to who would (finally!) eliminate the Sheriff’s office, after its latest scandal du jour. Only Domb — suddenly a self-styled change agent — stepped up to emphatically say the office had to go.
The polls candidates are seeing may say something different, but it seems to me that, after eight years of plodding, same-old, same-old governing, Philadelphians want more than finger-to-the-wind timidity. (Besides, who believes polls nowadays, anyway?) Having a mayor who wants to be there for you, who has your back, who will coach and cajole and emotionally drive a city into being its best version of itself is what this election is really about.
That’s why Domb’s ad has gotten to an essential truth. Whether he’s the candidate to deliver on what Jim Kenney shrunk from will be decided by voters in May. But at least now, finally, someone has drawn a stark contrast with the status quo, and maybe that stimulates a vibrant debate from here on out about just what the city needs in a mayor.
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