While Philadelphia’s 2015 mayoral and council races are a long way off, a new poll from the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests this summer’s political turmoil has given voters a hankering for a change election.
The number of people who think conditions in Philadelphia have gotten worse since 2009 rose 10 points to 37 percent, while the number who think things have been gotten better shrank by eight points to 25 percent.
This is in part driven by the decline mentality ingrained into many longtime residents and not shared by newcomers. A majority those who arrived within the last 10 years — 43 percent — think the city is on the right track, versus 36 percent who think it’s on the wrong track. Compare that to the 48 percent of residents who have lived here for 30-plus years and think the city is on the wrong track, and the 36 percent who think it’s on the right track.
Pew did not ask respondents for their positions on the specific city issues, which would have given us a better understanding of residents’ souring mood. But a look at the headlines that ran between July 23 and August 13, when the poll was conducted, reveals this was during peak media coverage of the school funding crisis.
According to Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, most respondents were polled before August 9, when Superintendent William Hite announced that the schools might not open on time. But it still seems like a safe bet that ongoing problems with school funding weighed heavily when people were prompted to think about city politics.
Although it is debatable how much blame Mayor Michael Nutter and city council members really deserve for Pennsylvania’s decades-long project of creating a third-world education system in one of America’s wealthiest metro regions, the turmoil has still negatively affected voters’ assessments of their local politicians:
Approval of Nutter’s job performance, for one, has plummeted 21 points since 2012, and the number disapproving increased by 22 points. City Council’s collective reputation has also felt turmoil. Back in 2009, approval of the council was evenly split (39-39). Now, voters disapprove of their performance by almost 2-1, with disapproval shooting up 18 points to 57 percent.
Here we see a similar split between newer and older Philadelphians. Longtime residents disapprove of Nutter (54-39) more than residents who have lived in here for 10 years or less (44-39). The same goes for City Council, where newer residents only slightly disapprove of the council on net (35-38 percent, with 27 percent undecided), and longtime residents despise them (28-60 percent)
The likely driver behind this discontent is the unemployment rate. Voters aren’t wrong that employment conditions really did get worse during the five-year period Pew examines. In January 2009, unemployment in the city stood at 8.8 percent. When this city council took office in January 2010, it had risen to 11.1 percent. It had fallen to 10.1 percent as of this past June, but some of that “improvement” comes from people dropping out of the labor force altogether, since there aren’t enough job openings.
The big economic events of the last five years that probably stand out most for voters include rising unemployment, extremely slow or nonexistent wage growth, and very deep state and local budget cuts to public schools and other municipal services. Rightly or wrongly, this has left City Council to deal with a cranky electorate, and could create a lucrative political opportunity for the next mayoral candidates to run against Nutter’s outgoing administration (in much the same way Councilmember Nutter ran against the term-limited former Mayor John Street, even though he was not on the ballot).
Whether Philadelphians remain quite this cranky into 2015 remains to be seen. Two years is an eternity in politics, and the mood of the voters — and the issues they’ll want to hear about — will turn on factors we don’t know yet.
These could be the short-term performance of the national and regional economy; a resolution to the school funding standoff with Gov. Tom Corbett; the status of property tax assessment and collections reforms; the status of the land bank and the effectiveness of recently adopted anti-delinquency policies; the bike share rollout the status of a state transportation funding bill that averts SEPTA’s “doomsday budget” and surely some unknown, unforeseen issues.
If the election were held today, it seems likely some council members would lose their seats. Lucky for them they still have two solid years to listen to voters, draw arrows of accountability to the correct political actors, and most importantly, improve their handling of city issues they do control and which can’t be blamed on the state: Land use and housing policies, vacant property disposition and delinquent tax collection; the transportation network for bikes, pedestrians and buses; corruption in the sheriff’s office, and the fairness and competitiveness of the city’s tax system.
Jonathan Geeting is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, where he writes about land use and public space politics. His work appears at Next City, This Old City and Keystone Politics.