My commentary in the June 2 edition of the Local focused on a bizarre political situation that has been festering for over a year, the outgrowth of a most unusual conflict between a West Philadelphia neighborhood, SEPTA, an $84 million taxpayer investment and a high-profile councilman who walked away from an important decision.
Michael Nutter, self-appointed dragon-slayer of all social ills, could not seem to bring himself to override the wishes of a ward leader in his district, even though those wishes include an illegal conversion and use of a street, and a costly reversal of progress for a surface transportation project fully funded, paid for and potentially operational. That project is the Route 15 Girard Avenue streetcar system that was to initiate similar upgrades and restoration for two other routes, one of them being our own Route 23 on Germantown Avenue. The start date for Route 15 was June 2004.
The real story is that Carol Campbell, ward leader and secretary of the Democratic City Committee, sitting at the right hand of U.S. Congressman Bob Brady, is so powerful that she is seen as the kingmaker or career breaker in the next mayoral election. She is reputed to control so many inner city wards that a few phone calls could end or start careers. Nutter is genuinely afraid to cross her, and Brady will hide in the corner if told to do so — and he did so.
The current SEPTA management seems to want to do all it can to remove itself from any obligation to run trolleys again, and for that reason has not taken a very aggressive position in trying to remedy the stalemate on Route 15. No wonder a full year has passed since the announced start date. Some feel that by keeping the spotlight off that trolley line, it precludes SEPTA from having to explain not only why the two other routes have languished, but why the agency has begun selectively dismantling the infrastructure it was supposed to maintain. Most of this “unofficial sabotage” began the month after the Route 15 startup was put off.
I think that we all know that Michael Nutter is eyeing the Mayoral seat in 2007, and one does not get there by pissing off party bosses. But I don’t think that it is necessarily that simple. First of all, Nutter, if he is as independent minded as people make him out to be, will never get the support from the party in the primary over Chakah Fattah and John Saidel, although I don’t think that Campbell is in the Chakah Fattah cheering section. But more importantly, believe it or not, this is how the Ward structure is supposed to work. Nutter has been known as one of the only District Councilmen to defer to their Ward Leaders about issues of the sort. In most districts, the old system where Ward Leaders actually controlled the destiny of their Wards is virtually non-existent.
I think that we also must note that this is not just about parking spaces. SEPTA has made it clear that they do not want to maintain Trolley lines. If you were living in West Philly, would you want to park somewhere else only to have that street have abandoned Trolley tracks that turn into blithe?
Nutter does not just have to worry about the Mayor’s race here. If he decides to back out then he will have to defend his Council seat. You don’t stay in office by pissing off your constituents, no matter how wrong you think that they are.