April 17, 2017

Urban Talks with Michael Nutter: Reflections on Leadership: Lessons Learned in City Hall and Beyond

past event


Penn IUR and the School of Social Policy & Practice welcomed SP2 Senior Fellow Michael Nutter, Former Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, on three dates in March and April for a series of Urban Talks. Discussing his experience campaigning locally and holding office as both a City Councilman and Mayor of Philadelphia, Nutter shared insights on the path to public service and the responsibility of governing. Supplementing his talk with video clips and newspaper clippings, he highlighted key moments in his career and Philadelphia’s history.

In the first of the three-part series, Nutter recounted his early years in Philadelphia, his initial call to public service, and his journey to the Mayor’s Office. A connection from a summer job while a University of Pennsylvania student introduced him to local politician John C. Anderson, who would become his mentor in the following decades. Through his work on Anderson’s campaign for City Council, he saw the impact that quality public service leadership could have on the lives of real people in Philadelphia, inspiring him to follow the call to public service himself. Following early unsuccessful attempts to run for office in the 1980s, Nutter was elected to City Council in 1991 and remained a member for the next 14 years. In 2007, he decided to run for mayor. Running a mayoral campaign closely resembles starting a business, he argued; Candidates begin with a core of support, but need to be highly organized in order to broaden their appeal, keep donations consistent, and eventually win elections.

In his second talk, “Getting Stuff Done in a Big City: From Daily Duties to Crisis Management”, Nutter transitioned between day-to-day practices of good governance and handling unexpected calamities.  Directing the police commissioner to draft a new crime reduction strategy contributed to a 31% drop in homicides by the time he left office. The creation of two new positions that dealt explicitly with issues of integrity and transparency created an anti-corruption culture in city hall. Unexpected turns, however, are unavoidable for any mayor, Nutter stressed. The deaths of four Philadelphia police officers in the line of duty underscored the more difficult human side of the job. When the Recession hit in the first year of his term, the city was forced to cut services and renegotiate contracts, all while trying not to lay off any workers. By the end of his second term, however, the city has seen considerable successes: eight straight years of population growth, an increased high school graduation rate, an upgraded bond rating, and a construction boom in Center City. Despite the progress made, there are still unsolved problems of poverty, racism, and income inequality that run deeper than one mayor can fix.

In the final talk, “Reflections on Leadership: Lessons Learned in City Hall and Beyond”, he drew on a number of cases to stress the unpredictable nature of the job and the benefits of collaborating with mayors across the country. Nutter walked through a series of national trends that took the mayor’s office by surprise. Occupy Philadelphia, he highlighted as an example, required coordinating with protestors outside city hall for months. Unexpected events like the Occupy movement, violent teenage flash mobs and mass school closings challenged a number of U.S. cities. In these instances he was constantly talking to other mayors, sharing ideas and brainstorming solutions. In some cases though, Philadelphia was on the cutting edge of an idea and had to pave the way for other cities. The soda tax, for example, was something no other major city had proposed and navigating the political waters of an innovative idea took time. While the job of being mayor is a nonstop rollercoaster of emotion and challenges, Nutter argued it’s the best job in politics. The level of engagement is unlike any other elected position and working to make the lives of all Philadelphians better is a role that he loved.

Each event drew a diverse group of attendees eager to ask questions about his accomplishments in office, lessons learned, and ideas for the future. Questions ranged from specific initiatives aimed at increasing government transparency, how to work effectively with city council, and what Nutter sees as the biggest challenges facing Philadelphia in the years to come. 


Watch the Video: Urban Talks with Michael Nutter: Lessons Leard from City Hall and Beyond


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