Five things I learned about Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter watching his NBC 10 ‘Ask the Mayor’ program [VIDEO]

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter gave an hour of his time this week to answer resident questions that came to host NBC 10 by way of email, Twitter and Facebook, as we reported on Technically Philly in sharing video of the event.

Nutter has already been praised for use of Twitter — a move we had asked him about during a Q&A in July 2010 , a few months before the city imported communications director Desiree Peterkin-Bell, who had helped transform Newark Mayor Cory Booker into an urban political social media star.

The Ask the Mayor event — prompted by NBC 10 social media hire Lou Dubois and Bell — was unique, interesting and compelling. NBC 10 deserves credit for only sharing a single softball question — about cheesesteaks, of course — and Nutter and his team deserve praise too for participating in something new and relatively open. It was clear and admirable that Nutter hadn’t been prepared for the questions.

Granted, none of those questions amounted to public affairs journalism, but many did seem to represent the perspective of Philadelphians. Watch the five video segments of the event here or watch the first below and see what I learned about Nutter watching them.

What was most interesting to me though was the opportunity to watch some 40 minutes of Nutter speaking without a speech. I came away with a few takeaways about him:

  1. He knows governance — Throughout the several dozen questions, Nutter offered very practical, straightforward answers. He seemed like a smart, practiced man of governance. And that has largely been the most accurate swipe against him: he’s been just a competent caretaker. Any high-minded rhetoric we heard from him was — get ready for the surprise — while campaigning. Remember Nutter the tax man? That said, I was impressed to see the inspiration set aside for directness. One thing that hasn’t changed — from his days on City Council — is that he is good in the wonkish detailed corners of government.
  2. He hasn’t fully grasped the public-private partnerships his administration has embraced — I’m interested in being able to separate what decisions a leader OKs and what decisions a leader seems to lead, if not conceive of himself. The city is full of examples of cost-cutting private partnerships — something I’ve seen with a growing frequency — but I didn’t catch any highlight of that at all. Nutter quickly mentioned PhillyRising, but not its use of community groups. When asked about the need for trash cans in South Philly, I expected a call for civic action. He didn’t, nor did he talk about any of the other initiatives in that vein. He had a traditional top-down perspective on governance.
  3. He hasn’t lost that ‘dry wit’  — When first running for mayor in 2007, every profile that came out mentioned Nutter’s ‘dry wit,’ his deadpan demeanor. If you catch it, he’ll make you laugh. At one Nutter press conference I was in, I asked what differentiated Philadelphia enough to earn a grant from IBM, he looked at me and said, “we’re just better,” and, for a moment, looked for another question, before a trickle of laughter brought him to dive a little deeper. Yes, I remember that Michael Nutter. In the fifth segment of the NBC 10 piece, Nutter answered with exaggerated disbelief at a resident’s request for the city to shake down people who rummage through recycling. “Of all our problems, I am not going to send people after someone with a cart to get a few aluminum cans,” he said. He was funny: “I was feeling some kind of way,” he went on earlier. He can be fun — and, well, he can even do so while acting black — but it’s not something he has always succeeded at sharing, like the legendary Ed Rendell.
  4. He still doesn’t have a central issue — This is not news (and Patrick Kerkstra has argued it’s an asset) but it seemed as clear on this night as I had ever recognized before. I remembered candidate Nutter talking tough on crime because he needed to do so and really seeming to dive into the ethics and efficiency of a new Philadelphia government. Yet, in an hour of question answering, I heard no talking points on making City Hall cleaner, leaner and greener, though he does have progress to point to. Early on, I had thought technology would be of interest to Nutter — its ability to cut costs, offer transparency and improve systems seems to fit — but nothing has emerged. He was even fed a question about the city’s Wireless Philadelphia initiative and had no real answer. The public-private partnerships mentioned above or the green movement abounding citywide could be subjects to grab hold onto, but I didn’t see it. He got handed a crappy economy — I buy into that — but nobody’s central issue should be a recession.
  5. He thinks his central issue is education — He was given a great question: what was the city’s most important problem and how he and others were facing it. He went hard on education and was suddenly where he got the most rhythm of the night. “It should be the centerpiece of everything we do.” He called for volunteerism and for parents to demand more of their kids. With Arlene out — even if she was the victim — maybe that is a subject he can run with in a second term.

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