Michael Nutter became the third African American to lead Philadelphia when voters chose him by a wide margin of votes in the 2007 mayoral election. To some pundits, Nutter's victory at the polls was also deemed a turning point in the once racially polarized political history of the "City of Brotherly Love," for Nutter's support came from a diverse spectrum of voters who liked his ideas on fighting crime, ending corruption, and revitalizing the city's tax base. "You have to have a sense of urgency and a sense of passion to get things done," Nutter told Larry Eichel of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "and accept the fact that you will make decisions that will upset some people. I do what I do because of a passion to serve."
Nutter was born in 1958 and grew up at a time when his western Philadelphia neighborhood was becoming increasingly integrated. His family, which included three sisters, lived on Larchwood Avenue near Fifty-fifth Street, in a relatively prosperous home. Nutter's mother worked for Bell Telephone, and his father was a plumber and salesperson. The Nutters and their Larchwood neighbors took part in the Saturday-morning block cleanups during the warm-weather months. The goal was to pick up trash, Nutter recalled, but there was also a sense of "responsibility for where we lived," he wrote in a guest editorial that appeared in the Daily Pennsylvanian. "We cared about our neighborhoods and our neighbors, and by doing it together we showed respect for each other."
Nutter's parents sent him to Transfiguration of Our Lord, a Roman Catholic parochial school, and from there he earned a scholarship to St. Joseph's Preparatory School, an all-male high school in the city run by Jesuit educators. When he graduated, he went on to the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's Ivy League school, again on scholarship. He initially planned on becoming a doctor, but he switched out of the pre-med curriculum and finished at the university's Wharton School of Business in 1979 with an undergraduate degree.
During his college years, Nutter worked as a disc jockey and assistant manager at Impulse Disco, one of the first minority-owned nightclubs in Philadelphia. His first postcollegiate job was with Xerox, the copy-machine manufacturer, and then he went on to become an investment manager with Pryor, Counts & Co. Seeking to put his business education into practice through savvy personal investments, he began frequenting city hall to learn more about the property foreclosures that were a good source of real estate parcels. While attending the city council meetings, he became fascinated by a newcomer named John F. Street, an African American fifteen years his senior who had recently been elected to the council. Nutter's interest in politics led to a job running the reelection campaign for John Anderson, another Philadelphia councilperson, in 1983. In that same election, voters also chose W. Wilson Goode, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper, to become Philadelphia's first African-American mayor. When Anderson died a few months after his term began, Nutter helped Angel Ortiz win a 1984 election for an at-large seat on the council.
Nutter made his own bid for a city council seat in 1987 from the Fourth District, which included parts of northern and western Philadelphia, plus Wynnefield, Overbrook, Roxborough, Manayunk, and East Falls. However, he faced intense opposition from the incumbent, who also had Street's support. In 1990 he became a ward leader for the Democratic Party machine, and two years later he ran again for a council seat and this time won. He and Street spent several years clashing over various issues, and those battles continued when Street was elected mayor in 1999. Street served two four-year terms as mayor but became the focus of criticism during his second term because of a corruption scandal among members on his team.
In Philadelphia, Nutter was already long known for his denunciations of Street and his record as mayor. "The tragedy of the Street administration," Eichel quoted him as saying, "is that it could have been so much more but for John Street, his stubborn, completely narcissistic, vindictive personality." Few were surprised in 2006 when Nutter announced his intention to resign his council seat in order to run for mayor; Street would not be in the race, for the city's charter limits its mayors to two terms, but Nutter faced a formidable slate of challengers for the Democratic slot on the ticket. In the May primary, Nutter surprised many by advancing past four other challengers, including two members of Congress, a longtime lawmaker in the state legislature, and a wealthy entrepreneur. In November, Nutter beat Al Taubenberger, the Republican candidate, by a large margin of votes—82 percent for Nutter and 17 percent for Taubenberger.
Nutter was elected to lead a heavily Democratic city with a population of 1.4 million that had not elected a Republican mayor since 1948. Philadelphia was also 46 percent black, but Nutter seemed to have won over a broad base of supporters through his dual campaign pledges to reduce the city's violent-crime statistics and cut taxes for small businesses to encourage growth and investment. The city's murder rate was at the forefront of the mayoral race, and even the lame-duck Street had been roundly criticized for waiting in line to buy an iPhone in June of 2007 as the murder rate climbed past the two-hundredth-victim mark. When Nutter was sworn in the following January, the number of homicides in Philadelphia for 2007 had reached 406—a rate higher than New York City's in per-capita terms.
Nutter is the father of two children—a son from a relationship before his 1991 marriage to Lisa Johnson, who ran a job-training program for Philadelphia high schoolers, and a teenaged daughter. The onetime disc jockey who once spun records under the name "Mixmaster Mike" abstained from alcohol and caffeine and was a vegetarian. He sometimes earned comparisons in the media to another African-American Democratic politician, Barack Obama, who also had an Ivy League degree and culled his support from voters across the racial spectrum.
At a Glance …
Born Michael Anthony Nutter on June 29, 1958, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Basil Nutter (a plumber and salesperson) and Catalina Nutter (a phone company employee); married Lisa Johnson (a job training specialist), 1991; children: Olivia and Christian. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist. Education: University of Pennsylvania, BS, 1979.
Career: Impulse Discotheque, disc jockey and assistant manager, late 1970s; Xerox, after 1979; Pryor, Counts & Co., investment manager, 1980s; Philadelphia ward leader, 1990; Philadelphia city council, 1992-2007; Philadelphia mayor, 2007—.
Addresses: Office—Philadelphia City Hall, Rm. 215, Philadelphia, PA 19107.
Nutter's first official act as Philadelphia mayor was an executive order that declared a crime emergency, which gave his new chief of police increased powers in closing off streets, setting curfews, and conducting frisks for illegal weapons. This last provision was a controversial one, for civil rights advocates claimed it was an obvious violation of constitutional guarantees prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure. "My view is that people also have a civil right not to get shot," was Nutter's retort, according to New York Times's Ian Urbina. He also announced a "Love Where You Live" campaign and a renewal of the same neighborhood clean-up Saturdays that he remembered from his childhood. The goal was to rid streets and alleyways of trash, he noted in the Daily Pennsylvanian, but he hoped the effort would become part of his crime-reduction plan. "If we show respect for our neighbor- hoods," he declared, "then we show respect for each other—a clean city is a safe city."
"Fighting Back against Filth," Daily Pennsylvanian, March 25, 2008.
Forbes, January 28, 2008, p. 34.
New York Times, November 23, 2007.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 2007.
USA Today, March 11, 2008, p. 11A.
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