Michael A. Nutter completed his second term as mayor of Philadelphia in January 2016; a few months later he joined the SIPA faculty as the David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice in Urban and Public Affairs. His recent political memoir, Mayor: The Best Job in Politics, was published late last year.
In a February 19 event at SIPA, Nutter joined Professor Ester Fuchs to discuss the book and his career in public service.
“If you go into public service for the right reasons, you'll find being mayor is the best job in politics,” Nutter said. “But if keeping the job becomes the job, it's time to go.”
In a recent conversation with SIPA News, the former mayor reflected on his inspirations, best practices, the lessons of running a city at the peak of a recession, and more.
Where does your own passion and dedication to serve come from?
A lot of it comes from having met and worked with one person in particular—the late John Anderson, whom I met in 1981 or early ’82 when he was a city councilman [in Philadelphia]. I witnessed his passion for service, his commitment to the people, and his willingness to make a lot of sacrifices to try to help improve the lives of others. I was 24 years old, and I saw the impact one person can have—what it was like to empower people, to give them hope and a sense of someone really caring.
But it’s always been a part of my mindset. My parents and my grandmother raised me and my younger sister to help other people. And I went to a Jesuit high school where we were taught to be a man for others. Service is a huge component of the Jesuit training.
You mention in the book that it takes “problem-solving pragmatism” to make it in public service. What does that mean?
As the great New York City mayor [Fiorello] La Guardia said, there is no Democratic or Republican way of sweeping the street. At the local level you have to have a pragmatic view—you have to think, “How do we solve this problem?” It’s about performance and getting things done, not about scoring political points. A great speech is never going to move any snow.
That’s part of what I really love about being mayor—you can actually do things. You have the ability to manage systems and affect people’s lives in positive ways. That’s the beauty of the job.
How do you mediate between a policy choice and some constituency that may not like it? How do you balance varying interests in a community?
The first premise you have to recognize is that you can’t make everyone happy. You go with what’s in the best interest of the city and the majority of the citizens for the future—not the past and not even the present. That comes from research, analysis, good thought leadership, talking to a variety of people, and having smart advisers around you.
[As mayor] I started every meeting by asking the most important question first: What’s the right thing to do? Then we would have a full-blown discussion about who’s for it, who’s against it, and who’s going to be upset. Is it going to have political implications? Is it contained [in Philadelphia] or does it have broader implications? How do other cities do it?
After we’ve put everything on the table and know where the traps are, the question still remains: What’s the right thing to do? The answer at the end is hopefully the same one at the beginning. If you primarily govern by what the right thing to do is, you’re going to be okay.
But you still have an obligation to explain to the people who are opposed. You have to respect them and acknowledge them. You have to tell them that this is a tough decision and I know what your objections are. We took those into consideration, but we think for the majority of the citizens of our great city, this is the right thing to do going forward.
What’s a real-world example?
During the financial crisis in late 2007 and early 2008, we got recommendations from all the departments and agencies, and we decided that we would raise taxes and cut services, but we were not going to do massive layoffs.
One recommendation was to close 11 libraries out of 54 in order to save $8-million. I’ve used the public library since I was a kid; I had been a huge champion and supporter. But as tough as it was, no department could be off limits—if we were cutting overtime at the police department and doing other things at the fire department, we had to close some of the libraries. And [we determined that] we had a higher number of libraries per capita compared to other cities and would only close those where another library was nearby.
It was the absolute worst decision of my entire political career. People were really upset, and rightfully so. Libraries were safe havens. People who didn’t have computers relied on them to job hunt or get other information. It’s a communal place. My mistake was not asking more questions or pushing the team further. The goal was to save $8-million, not to close libraries. I should have asked for more options.
And eventually we were sued about whether we could close those libraries, and lost—and we ended up saving $8-million from the libraries anyway, by cutting the hours and moving a few things around.
It was a huge lesson for me. From then on, for every major decision, or whenever someone proposed something that I felt uncomfortable with, I would think back to that moment and push harder. I would say give me more information and more alternative options.
You mention in the book that cities look to other cities for inspiration and solutions. Is there a particular thing that many American cities have done well in recent years? What’s the biggest problem that cities are grappling with today?
Mayors certainly do utilize ideas and programs of other mayors across the country, and we share our stuff constantly. There is no mayor who says, “I just created this great program and I won’t tell anyone about it,” because why would you do that?
I work with mayors across the country on a number of projects. One of them—What Works Cities, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies—focuses on using data and evidence-based practices to improve services. We created this huge network to give 100 mayors technical assistance for a variety of issues. These are mayors of mid-sized cities with populations between 100,000 and one million. We talk to each other and share a lot of ideas and information.
I also helped create an organization called Cities United, which is a network of 120 cities, focused on reducing violence in black communities. We have meetings and bring mayors together to provide them with technical assistance on how to deal with some of the major issues such as public safety, homicide, crime, shootings, and drugs.
One of the biggest challenges facing American cities is getting along with the federal government. As I’ve mentioned in my books, there is a United Cities of America. I think you are going to see more and more forceful leadership coming from cities and mayors, often at odds with policy promoted by the current federal administration. You are going to see it in immigration with sanctuary cities, in infrastructure, in overall public safety, with the Department of Homeland Security and the EPA, in transportation and education. Increasingly cities are becoming more and more active players in those spaces. The federal government increasingly looks like it’s lost its way. Mayors will organically start to take the call to step up. I love and encourage that. I want to be as helpful as possible.
What advice would you give to SIPA students who are looking to start a career in public service, either in elective office or otherwise?
First thing I would say is, get involved. There’s an election somewhere just about every six months. Whether you like the current federal administration or not, we need smart SIPA students and alumni to go into government.
You can work on a campaign. I think it’s one of the best ways to get involved. Meet someone you like or admire and help them get into office. You can also get involved in your own neighborhood, because all politics are local. Wherever you live, join the block organization or town watch group. Help maintain and improve the quality of life that you enjoy in your neighborhood. You live where you live for a reason, and you might as well get involved.
The great thing about the government is that there are tons of different jobs and skills that are needed. It can be overwhelming at first but once you get involved, you are going to meet a lot of folks who can help you navigate that environment. Whatever your skills are, find your passion, find what it is that you really want to do, be it civil service or run for office or work on a campaign or work for a NGO. The key is, do something.
This interview, conducted by Mia Shuang Li MPA ‘18, has been condensed and edited for clarity.