In separate appearances at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City, mayoral hopefuls Democrat Michael Nutter, the overwhelming favorite, and Republican Al Taubenberger, the heavy underdog, offered strikingly similar diagnoses of the problems facing Philadelphia, along with some remedies for the future.
Both men highlighted violent crime, public education and economic development as the three biggest issues facing the next city chief. Each decried the so-called "pay-to-play" culture, as well as what they deemed an unfairly high local tax burden on residents and businesses. And both promised tremendous changes in the way City Hall is run, presenting themselves as fresh alternatives to the current administration.
In contrast to the bitter rhetoric and atmosphere of recent mayoral campaigns, Nutter and Taubenberger have each made a point of saying that they respect one another and actually seem to like each other. But less than a month until Election Day, almost no one expects a close race, although Taubenberger insists he's in it to win.
"We have the kind of chance at reform that people haven't seen in Philadelphia in maybe 50 years," said Nutter, who addressed about 70 people at an Oct. 7 program organized by the Rodeph Shalom Men's Club and Women's Group. A former City Councilman who resigned in 2006 to run for mayor, Nutter prevailed on May 15 in a crowded Democratic primary.
Tax Rates and Structures
"We have to clean up our image and the pay-to-play structure in City Hall. It must come to an end. And we have the highest local tax burden of any major city in America," he continued. "We have to set high standards and high expectations for ourselves."
Nutter also touted his plan to reform the city's zoning code to make it more decipherable.
Taubenberger sounded a similar note five days earlier, when he spoke at the same synagogue before about two-dozen people at a joint Men's Club and Women's Group dinner.
"I think pay-to-play is atrocious, I think it's awful, and it also hurts our city in an economic way," said Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, adding that many companies decide to pass on doing business in the city rather than deal in what is at least perceived to be a corrupt municipal system.
Like Nutter, Taubenberger also moved from that sentiment to tax issues and how they affect economic development.
"Take a look at our tax structure by looking at City Line Avenue. The industry is all in Montgomery County, and the residents are all in Philadelphia County," he said. "We need a tax system that is fair and understood — that brings the revenue in but also offers stiffer competition."
Both have advocated the gradual reduction of the net-income portion of the business-privilege tax. They've also each pledged to adopt the Tax Reform Commission recommendation to equalize the wage-tax rate for both Philadelphia residents and commuters by 2015. Currently, Philadelphia residents pay 4.3 percent and commuters 3.8 percent.
Neither candidate made any specific appeal to Jewish voters or was asked a specific question of Jewish concern.
One area where policy disagreement has emerged between them relates to how best to confront the city's homicide rate.
"Weekends in Philadelphia are oftentimes more violent than what's going on halfway around the world in Iraq," said Nutter, who's advocated certain measures that some consider controversial, including granting police the authority in high-crime neighborhoods to stop and frisk anyone suspected of carrying a gun.
"I am not enamored with stop and frisk," said Taubenberger, when asked to name an issue on which he disagrees with Nutter. "I don't like that anyone gets targeted because they look a certain way. I just don't like it."
While Nutter has championed tougher gun laws, Taubenberger said that there needs to be better enforcement of existing measures. He also said that he favors eliminating many special units in the police department in order to get more beat officers on the street.
He further stated that he'd work to resuscitate a failed bill introduced by State Rep. John Perzel (R-District 172) that would have added 1,000 new police officers to the commonwealth by having the state and local municipalities share the costs.
During the question-and-answer session, Nutter was probed about what he would do to combat asthma in children and help improve the overall air quality.
"The health department needs a complete overhaul," he responded, adding that childhood obesity should also be a major concern of city government.
Taubenberger was asked if he would take a job in a Nutter administration. In kind, he replied that he'd hire Nutter.
Another Rodeph Shalom congregant flat-out asked why the candidate was a Republican.
"Well, why not?" quipped Taubenberger. "There are two parties in this country, with good and bad in both parties. In 150 years, we've essentially had one-party rule in this town. There ought to be a change from time to time. That's how you get ideas on the table."