A Mayor’s View of Why Policy (Still) Matters

Former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter reflects on his lessons in leadership from two terms in office, provides a window into the policymaking process, gives his thoughts on the current political landscape, and explains why he believes that this is a better time than any other to study public policy.

Mayor Michael A. Nutter is the David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice in Urban and Public Affairs. He completed his second term as Mayor of Philadelphia in January 2016, and recently published a political memoir titled Mayor: The Best Job in Politics.

In a recent conversation with the Columbia Public Policy Review, the mayor reflected on some of the battles he faced during his public service in Philadelphia, the leadership lessons that he learned, his thoughts about our current political environment and his firm belief that now is the time for effective public servants, perhaps more than ever before.

Note: This interview was conducted on April 18th, 2018 and has been lightly condensed for clarity.

There’s a section in your book where you talked about one of your mentors – Councilman John Anderson. You wrote about the influence he had on you, in terms of your views on right and wrong, justice, how to stand up for people. You said that he was “impatient about progress – he cared passionately about justice – and people looked at him to lead.” Is there a specific moment that comes to mind with him that made you realize, “Wow, he’s actually influencing the lives of others and people are looking to him to help improve their lives?”

A couple quick things that come to mind. He was a great champion for the arts. Art and culture. He spoke about that industry, that sector, that part of the economy. He wasn’t saying, ‘Look at that Monet,’ it was more about the promotion of arts and culture as a part of our day-to-day lives, as a job creator, as beauty and humanity. And he could just speak about it in a way that drew people in, that got funding and support, and he took it on as serious.

Town Watch. Town Watch, I think was a relatively new idea in the early 1980s, part of a public safety strategy and he fought very strongly for getting funding for Town Watch because it was —

Sorry. What is Town Watch?

Oh. Town Watch is like an organized group of people on a block. Let’s say you had 10 people, you might design a schedule where two people walk the neighborhood for an hour or two every day. You got the 7:30 to 8:30 shift. Another group, 8:30 to 10. You live in a particular area, and you’re just watching what’s going on in your community. You’re not police, you’re not supposed to intervene. John was not only responsible for helping them get funding, but some of the early rudimentary even Walkie-talkies so people could communicate and felt that that was something very important.

So it’s not always the big grandiose things. Some people in politics just want to build monuments of themselves or —

Have parades for themselves?

— this is on the ground, fundamental, nitty-gritty stuff. Here’s a grant for $500, or whatever it was, which I’m sure was big money back then. But you told people that you believed in them. You gave them a sense of hope, you empowered them to do things for themselves. Again, I could see when he showed up at these events that people were demonstrably appreciative. They would express what a difference it made to have someone who came and listened and then followed up. I’m 25, 26 years old, and seeing all this playing out before my eyes – it was amazing.

It reminds me of that Friedman article that you assigned [in his City Policy and Federalism class], the one that compared 9/11 with 11/9 [when the Berlin wall fell] and how leaders can either appeal to people’s better angels or their worst impulses. It sounds like he was very much in the former.

In the book, you also talked about, after working for the Councilman, in your four terms in the City Council, and some of the failures and successes during each of those terms. In 1993, there was a domestic partnership bill that would have given equal benefits to same-sex partners of city employees that you weren’t quite supportive of at the start, and it failed. And then you became a big champion of it in 1997, and not only pushed it across the finish line but also initiated the 3 bills to do that. What changed in your own personal thought process with that bill? Did you meet city employees that were having issues?

It wasn’t even that. In ‘93, it wasn’t that I was opposed. I wasn’t; I was supportive, but I could have done more.

What happened was that I got caught in a dilemma. In a 17-member city council, you need 9 members to pass a bill. I had put forward a bill to create a civilian police advisory commission, which I had a decent amount of support for, including the City Council President, which was very helpful. The Mayor wasn’t supportive. You need 9 votes to pass a bill, and 12 to override a veto, so I knew I needed to get to 12.

A colleague, Councilman Ortiz, put forward his domestic partnership bill, which the City Council President hated and was unalterably opposed to. The Mayor was for it. I had a personal dilemma in trying to navigate — I wanted to keep the Council President’s support for my bill, but if I get actively involved with this bill he hated — he might pull his support. So he was a big supporter and would help garner additional support for my piece of legislation, which I thought was important. I knew Councilman Ortiz’ bill was important, but did not have as much support, and if I tried to do both at the same time, both would fail.

So, as I said, I never did anything to hurt or undermine Councilman Ortiz’ bill. If I had more experience, if I was more confident, if I had more seniority (this was my first and second years in office), I would have figured out how to navigate that dilemma or I would not have paid as much attention to the potential outcome. It was a rookie mistake. My bill ended up passing, the Mayor vetoed it, and we overrode that veto.

Even in that victory, I knew that I had not been my best self on the other piece of legislation. I decided at that time, in that moment, I had something I needed to fix and that I had to dedicate myself to it. It wasn’t an if, it was a when. So in ‘97, I introduced the legislation. The Council President was still opposed, and really mad at me for bringing it back up. But I had to atone – I had to make right – something that I considered a personal failure. I spent the next year battling with him, and we got it passed in ‘98.

I think some of the themes from that story – the pragmatism to know that you could get one win but not both, the patience to wait it out, the ability to compromise – I think those are themes that are useful to students to hear. We’re heading into this dangerous “it’s either my way or the highway” politics, so that’s valuable to see.

I knew what I needed to do. I was gaining a certain level of respect in the Council five years in, I had done some other things, I had curried favor with colleagues on some of their stuff. In a legislative body, there is some give and take: there is some ‘Oh, I was for your bill, you should be for mine.’ The things people claim that they don’t like, but it’s the reality. So it was a big personal test, but I was determined. That fight in particular started to shape the narrative around who I was becoming as an elected official, and it started to define my style.

There was another aspect of that episode that I found interesting. In the book, you were talking about how by championing those types of changes, government can nudge businesses to change their behavior as well. During your time as Mayor, what were some issues that you nudged the business community on?

Paid family leave. A Councilman who I had worked with in City Council, he was very focused on that issue. This was during the course of the Recession, when people were hurting from a number of different angles.

In that case, I wasn’t against the issue, but I thought it was one about timing. We were raising taxes, we were changing regulations, we were cutting back on services, and we needed our business community to stay strong for the other things we needed to do.

They put the bill forward, passed it, and unfortunately, I vetoed. A couple years later, they came back with another bill, passed it, and I vetoed. At that point, I said, ‘OK: We’re in a little better shape now than we were before.’ It was highly controversial, there were many levels to it, and we looked at other cities and what models they were using, and then we tried to craft something that worked for us.

So I told the Councilman, ‘We probably won’t reach agreement on this one right now because of technical components of the bill, and the timing. But this is the promise I’ll make you: If you pass this bill now, there’s a fairly high chance I’ll probably veto it.’ I didn’t say this part to him, but I knew he didn’t have 12 [to override the veto]. I told him, ‘I’ll veto it, and I know it’ll be upsetting to you, but my commitment to you is, once that part is over, I’ll create a task force on paid medical leave. We’ll have activists, businesspeople, scholars. You’ll have input.’ Because it was the right issue, but it’s the wrong time. I did want to reach resolution on this issue.

And then I told the business community, we will have paid family leave in Philadelphia. I’ve now vetoed this bill twice. If we’re going to be a city of the future, if we’re going to be a progressive city, these are the issues that we’ll have to deal with. So you need to get prepared – and you should get involved with this process – for me to sign this legislation at some point in time. As we say back at home, you’re either at the table or you’re on the menu. You decide.

At the end, we had a task force, a bill got put forward, and I think neither of us were particularly happy – but sometimes I think that’s the best outcome, when everybody doesn’t get what they want but they got something – and I signed the bill.

And so it gave you the time to create the political environment, to get both stakeholders on board to eventually pass that.

And again, it goes back to the domestic partnerships – it goes back to what I say to my students – you have to see the long game. Public opinion does shift over time, if you give people the time to adjust themselves. I did the cigarette ban.

Six years? Eight years? It took a while.

Six years, 2000 to 2006. Part of the reason we were successful was because public opinion had started shifting. We had smoke-free in New York, in New Jersey, I think in Maryland or in Delaware, but at some point we were virtually surrounded by smoke-free states. And I said, what’s the big deal? The bars and restaurants won’t fall into the Delaware River.

So, sometimes, big important efforts: a) usually don’t get done at one time, b) always took longer than we’d like, and c) the end result is never as bad as the opposition says it’ll be, and it’s often not as nirvana as the proponents would say. It’s usually somewhere in between.

It’s usually a question of timing. I think cities are living, breathing entities. They have rhythms. They get excited – you know, the Eagles win the Superbowl – and you have to be able to read some of that. You have to be a leader, you have to be motivated to do something even if it wasn’t your idea. You have to hear other people’s ideas. You have to try to bring people along to your ideas, and paint a picture, and create a vision of what could be. That’s what leadership is about.

It seems like it requires humility on the part of the leader too, to listen to the ideas of others and listen to their team. You consistently reinforce that idea of teamwork in the book. On that theme of teamwork, you talked about how during your first campaign for Mayor, you made fighting corruption one of the themes that you were passionate about. You even created the Chief Integrity Officer position, and put her office near yours to communicate that message about change.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about ethical leadership, as Director Comey has made the rounds with his new book. A quote from the book is, “President Trump is untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.” During the policy:dialogue trip a couple weeks ago, we talked to some folks that didn’t mind that side of the President. They talked about how his leadership style might be faulty, but at least he’s getting the things he said he’d get done, done for them.

Can you talk about why we should care about that? Why does a leadership style that revolves around the individual, and not the team, make a difference in people’s lives?

That’s just a complete rejection of the idea that running a government or being a leader is not about you. I came into government and was taught more from a servant-leadership standpoint, that you take an oath of office to not only uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Charter, and that you remember that the last line, that you will “discharge the duties of the office with fidelity.” Because you are a public servant.

It’s not for personal gain. It can’t be all about you. That does not inspire people, which is why ‘Team’ matters. When we had 20 inches of snow out there, I was not driving that truck. We had people out there working 16-hour shifts in some of the worst conditions. And you know, some will say, it’s their job and that’s what they get paid for. Okay, that’s fine.

But there’s doing the job and then there’s doing the job [with effort]. Our folks would go above and beyond because they understood that I valued their work, and I talked about them on television and at press conferences. I was proud of them, and I wanted to motivate them. People depended on them – people won’t be able to get to work, kids wouldn’t be able to go to school, seniors wouldn’t be able to go to the market, the doctor, whatever the case may be. If someone had a heart attack, and we couldn’t get an ambulance to them, they could die, unless you are clearing primary, secondary, tertiary streets and doing it as quickly as possible.

That’s more than just having a job that you have to do. I wanted people to have a commitment to this work. And you do that by providing servant-leadership, not ego-driven leadership. That type of leadership doesn’t inspire and it doesn’t motivate.

Look, we see some of the best evidence of that in terms of management style. Rex Tillerson got in trouble because he thought it was his job to try and do something with North Korea. Because of the President’s outsized, uncontained ego, he said that’s a waste of time and Tillerson shouldn’t do that. And then what does [the President] announce? ‘I directed Mike Pompeo to go into North Korea.’ Because, it was about [the President]. It’s always about him. He wants to be the conductor and play all the instruments. We’re seeing this play out with the Nikki Haley thing. You don’t announce to the world that the UN Ambassador was confused. She’s like, ‘What are you talking about? If you’re changing the policy two hours later without telling me, then I’m not confused — you all changed and didn’t tell me.’

Putting these two words together almost feels offensive, but that’s almost a chaos theory of – the place is just going to run. We might be on top of some things, and we might not – I mean, it’s got to be so demoralizing.

And I think we’re seeing that reflected with the high rate of turnover. Last question – this is going to go up on our website, where incoming students will see your advice.

Hopefully this answer won’t be a deterrent, then.

I sure hope not. To someone that’s on the fence about coming to policy school at a place like Columbia, in our current era of alternative facts and scandals and fake news, what would you say to them? Do you think there’s still a space for fact-based policymaking?

Absolutely. This country won’t be defined by one person in the White House. Part of the reason that I say that is because he has to consistently say things to reinforce the message, lest some people either forget or drift over to the fact-based world.

The second reason is that our systems are really designed, in a variety of ways, to have some level of a circuit breaker and really prevent us from doing something crazy. Or, if the person in the office does do something crazy, there’s systems in place to deal with that. I just think that we’re in a volatile world environment, as we see with Brexit, and stuff going on in France and Germany and a variety of places, and it’s something that is moving around. It’s moving around the world. Everybody is getting their day in the sun.

What we need to do is stay focused, and help people understand that facts do matter. They’re out there – you might have to do a little digging – but they’re available. I can’t think of a better time to be involved in democracy and be involved in government than right now.