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December 22, 2015

Mayor Nutter talks progress, regrets, papal costs, Fumo and Hillary in exit interview

The outgoing mayor says he lived up to promises made before he took office eight years ago next month

When Philadelphia returns from its holiday news slumber, the second floor of its City Hall will formally undergo a major transition not seen since before the Phillies broke the curse of the statue way atop the building.

On Jan. 4, Jim Kenney will be sworn in as the city’s 99th mayor, relegating 98th Mayor Michael Nutter to former-mayor status like John Street before him, Ed Rendell before him and W. Wilson Goode Sr. before him.

With months of transition work already logged, things should go as smoothly as such things can, but PhillyVoice couldn’t let that happen without an exit interview with Nutter. What follows is a lightly edited version of our half-hour Monday chat with the mayor, who just got back from South Carolina, where he was campaigning for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"The president is too much of a consummate professional and non-petty person to do something like that. He has very much embraced my work with, for and in support of him." –Mayor Michael Nutter on whether Obama has 'busted his balls' for endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2008

PhillyVoice: How have you changed as a human being since that morning we met up in your kitchen before going to vote in the 2007 general election?

Michael Nutter: I think I certainly have an understanding and appreciation for the complexities of the job, balancing the competing interests, the gray areas of policy and discipline that go into running this big city or any other big city.

I like to think being a student of government [while on Council], seeing Rendell, Street and Goode up close helped. But, there’s no experience like being in the seat, being the person and realizing the enormity of responsibility involved. It is a learning experience; there’s a learning curve no matter how much you know. Like any other executive, everyone is new at least once.

Whether I wanted to or not, I had to become that much more seasoned when the recession hit. There was not much time for learning and doing either.

I’ve come to understand, and better appreciate, the value of time, the precious nature of time, and how fleeting your time is. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here for eight years.

PV: Thanks to chronological overlap, much of your term will be remembered as occurring when President Barack Obama was in office. This, while you endorsed Hillary Clinton. Two-part question: Did he ever bust your balls about the endorsement, and would things have been different in Philadelphia had that presidential race gone differently?

MN: The president is too much of a consummate professional and non-petty person to do something like that. He has very much embraced my work with, for and in support of him. By 2012, the president and his top advisors considered me one of the top surrogates out on the campaign trail.

Last Wednesday, when we were at the White House [for an event], the president and first lady told my mother that they were grateful for the great things we’ve done in Philadelphia and how much they appreciated the help and friendship. It was sincere and the highest-level compliment.

It’s impossible to estimate or calculate what differences there could have been between [Obama and Clinton] and the recession. I have an excellent relationship with Hillary Clinton; I was just campaigning for her in South Carolina.

Any residual [effect of the endorsement] evaporated when he took office. Actually, in November or December 2008 [before Obama was inaugurated], I was invited to Chicago to speak with the president-elect’s team of incoming staff. Rahm Emanuel was just announced as his chief of staff, so a group of mayors went out to meet with his team.

This city has received so much help and support, from TIGER grants and HUD Promise Zones, [other] awards. We’ve had every Cabinet official – except for secretaries of state and defense, because city visits aren’t a part of those jobs – in Philly several times.

President Obama is a smart, sophisticated guy, and Democrats have real primaries. What I do know is that we planned an unusual event – me, [U.S. Rep.] Bob Brady, [former Mayor and Gov.] Ed Rendell – with candidate Obama in September 2008, where he made four different stops in Philadelphia on one day with thousands and thousands and thousands of people coming out to see him. Four-stop visits like that don’t happen very often.

Outgoing Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, top, greets Democratic mayoral candidate and former City Councilman Jim Kenney, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, at the Relish restaurant in West Oak Lane. Kenney will succeed Nutter. (Matt Rourke/AP)

PV: What is your biggest regret as it pertains to something you weren’t able to accomplish while in office?

MN: There are two big things: On crime and on education.

I’m proud of the fact that we’ve significantly reduced homicides, shootings and Part I crimes, but I would have liked more.

On education, we have a 13 percent increase in the graduation rate … $400 million in new, recurring funding [investment in schools, which is the largest in five years]. On the negative side, we haven’t gotten the student-weighted funding formula, we need more graduates, we need more to go to two- and four-year [secondary education] or vocational training.

The things I’m most proud of are the things where there is a lot of huge work remaining to be done.

Poverty has been a problem for 30 years; it’s consistently about 30 percent [of the population]. There is still much work to do on that front, there are challenges moving forward, even with the progress we’ve made.

PV: Would you agree or disagree with my theory that [disgraced former State Sen.] Vince Fumo going to prison instead of remaining in Harrisburg to fight for local interests screwed the School District of Philadelphia as it came to state funding?

MN: There’s a dilemma in answering that question. I think there were a number of shifts in the power structure in Harrisburg, and whether that’s a combination of different people not in leadership positions – from leaving office on their own accord or being removed from office – or the shifting balance of power in the state Senate, House and governor’s office in 2010.

It’s a much larger combination of things than just one individual.

PV: In the quadrillion going-away interviews you’ve done this month, what question hasn’t been asked that you’ve long wanted to answer?

MN: The funny part about this is there are so many things I’d say that you couldn't print on your site, but I think what’s interesting in these interviews is that it almost seems like some folks are just getting to know the personal side of me, the human side of what it takes to run a big city and the impact that it has.

With any elected official, we’re still human beings. We’re real, normal people put into extraordinary circumstances. I know that people care about this city, and I – and our administration – did, too. Sometimes, we got it right. Sometimes, we made mistakes. I don’t think there’s ever been a perfect administration at any level of government.

When we came in, we said we’d do four fundamental things: Reduce crime and violence in Philadelphia, push hard for education, and I’d say we’ve done that. With the focus on jobs and economic revitalization … the wage tax is at a 30-year low, we have an A [bond] rating, a brand-new zoning code, a new city plan after 50 years, we’ve taken steps to fix a broken and corrupt property assessment system, development on the waterfront, the Navy Yard, recreation centers, the new police academy, a lot of stuff. I said we wanted to make Philadelphia one of the greenest cities in the country, and we’ve done that, too.

We’ve done a lot of things. That’s the work. But poverty is still too high. I know we’ve made some mistakes, but if you look at those four fundamental things: Public safety, education, jobs and integrity and transparency – by any measurement, we’ve changed some of the culture where public employees know they can’t get away with what they used to get away with, and the public knows they can’t get them to.

We did a lot of stuff we said we were going to do, despite the worst recession since the Great Depression, and after 60 years of population loss, we’ve had seven consecutive years of growth.

PV: Speaking of the recession, what was the pit-of-your-stomach moment when that hit?

MN: When my team told me that we were literally on the verge of running out of cash, so we had to [launch a] cash-conservation [plan], which stopped payments to vendors and only paid payroll, debt service and for emergencies.

PV: What’s your favorite celebrity meeting moment?

MN: That’s easy: Pope Francis.

In this Monday, June 1, 2015, photo, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter displays his phone with an application counting down the days until Pope Francis' scheduled visit during a news conference. (Matt Rourke/AP)

PV: Speaking of which, is the criticism of the unexpected $8 million price tag warranted? Are you worried that’s what people will remember about the end of your time in City Hall?

MN: What people will remember for the next 50 years was that the pope was here, that they heard him speak at Independence Mall or on the Parkway, that they stood and saw him at three different parade routes. That’s what people will remember most: The huge outdoor public events, and of all the cities in the country, the Vatican chose Philadelphia for this.

PV: What’s your going-away message for the city, your mayoral epitaph, if you will?

MN: I love this city more than I ever have in my life, and I’m grateful and appreciative to have been able to be mayor of my hometown. I have nothing but the best wishes for the next administration and will continue my focus on, in some way, making the city safer, more educated, doing whatever I can to continue to promote the city, to create job opportunities and attract more capital and to make more young people, and young-at-heart people, see the city for the great place it is.