Last night in Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. With an estimated 25 million people watching, it was a truly national stage for a mayor still best known around his hometown.
Some said that was intentional. The past few months have brought a flurry of rumors about Nutter being eyed by the Obama administration for a slot in the president’s cabinet, and the possibility that he could abandon Philadelphia. A last-minute schedule change placing his speech just a few hours before Obama’s seemed to add credibility to the notion that the party was setting Nutter up for the limelight.
If that was ever the case, Nutter’s blustery and rigid address seemed too forgettable to have marked the moment that he, or anyone really, ascended to national fame. At just under five minutes, it was a short speech, even for the rapid-fire parade of Democratic Party faithful that night, and failed to distinguish Nutter from an avalanche of his peers.
Perhaps the only thing that will be remembered is how little the mayor talked about the thing he supposedly knows best: running a city. In fact, despite no fewer than five big-city mayors sharing the bill this week, none have really highlighted issues facing cities. Most speakers incorporated some element of their profession into their talking points to lend credibility to the topic they covered. Business people talked about Obama’s making government more commerce-friendly, a veteran talked about ending the Iraq war, and so on.
What did Nutter talk about? Education.
Sure, it’s a key component of revitalizing American cities, and Nutter does have his children in a public magnet school. But was the topic really the best use of time for a mayor whose job gives him little day-to-day influence over education? No mention was made of the crippling urban poverty and violence that pervades many post-industrial cities, nor was any thought given transportation or infrastructure.
Cities are the engines of the American economy, driving growth and innovation. They host many of the top universities, cultural institutions and companies that define America — and for the first time in decades, many are gaining population. Yet many urban municipalities remain dependent on the federal government for funding and investments to stay afloat and improve aging infrastructure. No one understands this better than a smart technocrat like Nutter, with a mayor’s experience on how massive national programs get executed on the ground. But from his speech, you’d think there was no difference between how Obama and Mitt Romney would handle the nation’s cities, or even what the president has already done differently than his predecessors.
Perhaps urban issues are too boring or depressing to be featured during a jamboree like the DNC, which focused mainly on key party platforms like immigration, labor, gay rights and social benefit spending. But if the central message of the Democratic Party is how they are different from their opponents, and how they represent a fundamentally different path for America, what better way to do that than to pick up the banner of the oft-overlooked cities in a nation of suburbanites? What happened to being a big-tent party?
In fairness, Nutter is not the right person to blame for these omissions. He had said in previous interviews that DNC handlers had overseen the creation of the speech. Nutter is only reflecting the attitudes of both major political parties in the country, neither of which gave any real attention to the particular needs of America urban centers (aside from Romney pledging to eliminate Amtrak funding).
However, it speaks volumes that the Democrats, who depend on places like Philadelphia and Chicago to win national office, saw fit to make Nutter’s only real references to his home city a Ben Franklin quote and an anecdote about shoveling snow on his childhood block.
Ryan Briggs is an investigative reporter based in Philadelphia. He has contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, the Philadelphia City Paper, Philadelphia Magazine and Hidden City.