DENVER—Michael Nutter, the young, brainy, African-American mayor of Philadelphia, took a chance during the Democratic primary season. He vocally supported Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama, the candidate with whom he shares many qualities—and the overwhelming preference, as it turned out, of his constituents. He explained his decision by citing the Clintons’ track record of delivering for cities like Philadelphia, which experienced a revival during the 1990s. But in terms of raw political calculation, Nutter was picking sides in a battle that split Pennsylvania’s Democrats, from the highest levels (Governor Ed Rendell supported Hillary, Senator Bob Casey, Obama) right down to the neighborhood clubhouses that make up Philadelphia’s fabled—though somewhat diminished—Democratic machine.
So, how was Mayor Nutter feeling Thursday morning, after he listened to Joe Biden address the Pennsylvania delegation’s breakfast? “I think this week has been tremendously helpful,” he said. “I was very clear with the public. And I think people understand that in Democratic primaries, people can support who they want to support. But this is an adult business with adult consequences. We take our politics very seriously in Philadelphia.”
Despite everything, Nutter said, he was looking forward to hearing Obama’s speech—not the least of which because he appreciated the historic step it represented for black Americans—and he said that the wounds of the hotly contested primary had healed.
“You can see who’s standing next to me,” Nutter said, nodding to his right. “Congressman Fattah.”
Chaka Fattah, an opponent of Nutter’s in the 2007 mayoral campaign, represents a West Philadelphia district and has family connections to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. He supported Obama. “I don’t mean to minimize the fact that we had a tough primary, but when you have an organization that’s vital, you have competition for leadership,” he told me. “When Kennedy ran against Carter [in 1980], Ed Rendell and myself supported Kennedy and the party establishment of that time supported Carter.”
This campaign, of course, turned out differently than that one. “I’ve been involved in a lot of other insurgency campaigns,” Fattah said. “This is the first time I’ve seen the insurgency win.”
Fattah said that “the Obama campaign has put together the most significant field operation ever seen in the state of Pennsylvania”—one that, at least during the primaries, operated largely independently of the Philadelphia Democratic machine. For instance, Obama eschewed the customary practice of putting out “street money,” cash payments that candidates in the city have traditionally doled out on Election Day to precinct bosses and ward heelers. His campaign now must integrate its organization with this traditional Democratic infrastructure. Congressman Bob Brady, the burly former carpenter who runs the Philadelphia Democratic Party, stayed out of the primary battle and did not attend the convention, but I was warned not to read to read too much into that—he is apparently phobic about planes. (And also elevators.) Rendell, who is much beloved among the party faithful, has been playing the lead role in redeploying the troops. At a delegation cocktail hour on Wednesday afternoon, I met Josh Uretsky, a long-haired 31-year-old who introduced himself as the co-chair of Philadelphia for Obama. “I think that among the political elite, it’s coming together faster than a lot of people expected,” he told me.
Still, in Philadelphia, all politics is personal, and not everything has been fixed. At the same cocktail party, I met Tom Knox, a former banker and deputy mayor who is now running to succeed Rendell when his term expires in 2010. “He’s said in the past that I was his largest fund-raiser,” Knox said, though he added that Rendell had been known to exaggerate on occasion. “I was probably the only Obama guy” within the Rendell circle, Knox told me. “They were pissed. All right, maybe not ‘pissed’—I would say they thought I was stupid.”
For supporting Obama?
“For going against the machine,” Knox replied.
“Rendell told me he always thought Obama had a strong chance of winning the primary, and if he did that, of winning the general, too,” Knox said. But he said that Rendell backed Hillary “because the Clinton administration did more for the city of Philadelphia than anyone had ever done.”
So, was he expecting Rendell’s support when he runs for governor?
“This guy is a consummate politician—he never gets mad at anybody,” Knox said. He paused for a second and corrected himself. “Or, he doesn’t stay mad.”