Darrell Clarke Is Already Upstaging Mayor Kenney

5 takeaways from the first 48 hours of the Kenney era.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

In 48 short hours, newly minted Mayor Jim Kenney has already set a tone that could very well define his next four (or, more likely, eight) years in office. So far, his speeches and actions have underlined his commitments to enact a progressive agenda, serve old and new Philadelphians alike, and maintain a solid relationship with other power players in the city. At the same time, Kenney has been somewhat short on ambition, as if he’s afraid of promising too much and not being able to deliver. Here are five takeaways from Kenney’s first couple days in office:

1. Darrell Clarke stole Kenney’s thunder on his first day as mayor.

I’m just going to come out and say it: Council President Darrell Clarke gave a more mayoral speech than Kenney did on Inauguration Day.

Clarke’s address, delivered Monday at the Academy of Music to thousands of people, was more visionary, more detailed and more memorable than the speech Kenney gave a few minutes afterward. Clarke unveiled new, lofty proposals, including a jobs plan and “significant” criminal justice reforms. (The latter announcement is particularly interesting, given that Kenney is Mr. Criminal Justice Reform: He pushed through marijuana decriminalization as a Councilman and has pledged to help give ex-cons a second chance as mayor.) Kenney, on the other hand, used his inaugural speech to simply reiterate his campaign promises to fight poverty, expand pre-K and promote citywide unity, which, while no doubt ambitious on their own, failed to give residents anything new to chew on. Clarke’s speech was also longer: It was about 1,300 words long, as prepared for delivery; Kenney’s was roughly 1,150. That bears repeating: On Kenney’s big day, Clarke had more to say.

For his part, Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said the mayor crafted his inaugural speech with the two upcoming talks in mind: the budget address and a highly-publicized speech before the Chamber of Commerce. “The point was not to get into the nitty gritty of policies because we’ll have two other opportunities to do that in the future,” she said. “It was meant to broadcast what Jim Kenney is about, why he is that way, and a couple examples of how we’ll carry that out in the administration.”

What’s most interesting about Clarke upstaging Kenney, in my view, is that it’s exactly what he did to former Mayor Michael Nutter for the last four years. One political insider called it a “bad sign.” Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps Kenney gave deference to Clarke on Inauguration Day in service to his goal of playing nice with Council in order to, you know, pass legislation. Also, Clarke is unlikely to have as much power over Council now that Kenney is in office. With Nutter, Clarke had a common enemy to unite other lawmakers around. He doesn’t have that in Kenney.

2. Kenney is being stealthy anti-Nutter.

In his inauguration speech, Kenney barely mentioned Nutter, who left the city bigger, greener, more ethical and on more solid financial footing than when he took office. This is the sum total of what he said: “I want to thank Governor Rendell, Mayor Street, Mayor Green, Mayor Goode, Mayor Nutter and Justice Dougherty and, importantly, all of our tremendous city workforce who helped put this all together and who are working out on the street right now in every capacity to make our city run. I thank you for all your work.”

Though Kenney has acknowledged in the past that Nutter helped revive the city in recent years, he disagrees with some of Nutter’s policies and a lot of his governing techniques. Already, Kenney has undone two Nutter-era policies: In an executive order, Kenney made Philadelphia a full-blown sanctuary city again, reversing Nutter’s recent decision to permit more cooperation between city police and federal immigration officials. Less significant, but still symbolic, is the fact that Kenney has cleared automobiles from the doorstep of City Hall, where Nutter and other politicians have been parking for years.

3. Kenney is lavishly paying respect to Johnny Doc.

On Tuesday, Kenney attended two public events: the swearing-in ceremony for Police Commissioner Richard Ross as well as the swearing-in ceremony for Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, who is the brother of union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. At the beginning of his inauguration speech, Kenney also gave an extended shout-out to K-Doc, calling him a “young man who just got elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who … he and his brother lived about 100 yards from our home in South Philadelphia. … We did pretty good Kevin, don’t you think? God bless America.”

That’s a whole lot more love than Nutter got.

The fact that Kenney isn’t worried about looking too cozy with the Dougherty brothers is going to rub some people the wrong way, but, again, it’s in line with Kenney’s philosophy on governing: He thinks the mayor should work with and pay respect to union leaders, City Council and other stakeholders in the city. Otherwise, he could be shut out like Nutter was.

4. Kenney has been remarkably consistent.

There’s a flip side to the fact that Kenney hasn’t unveiled many new plans so far: He’s consistent. That’s a word I’ve heard more than once when asking people about Kenney’s job performance. Kenney laid out a vision during his campaign, and he’s sticking to it. He’s also told voters what his political values are, and he’s put them to use by paying respect to folks like Clarke and Dougherty.

5. So far, Kenney is making progressives happy.

In his first couple days in office, Kenney has restored Philadelphia’s status as one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the country, created a new cabinet-level position dedicated to diversifying the municipal workforce, and made City Hall a little less car-centric. Some progressives, a key part of the broad coalition that elected Kenney, are pretty hopeful about his first moves.

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  • Circa79

    it will be interesting to see if Kenney continues to allow this “co mayor” thing to persist. On one hand it will help keep CLarke on his side and smooth the path towards passing things, but the flip side is that people could start to perceive Kenney as weak and too willing to defer to the loudest voice. Clarke chose not to run for mayor and he needs to be reminded of the fact that he isn’t the mayor. If he felt he was best positioned to lead from the mayor’s office he should’ve resigned and run himself. I doubt he will have as much control over council as he did with 5 new members in place.

    • PHB

      Kenney WILL look weak if he continues to let the old Street regime henchman Clark act like co-mayor.

    • BobSmith77

      Clarke isn’t the mayor but he is the most powerful politician in Philly. It is just the way City gov’t is set up.

      • Circa79

        No city government is set up with a strong mayor. Not strong council president.

  • HolyFrijoles11

    Yep. Kowtowing to the unions, just like we expected.

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  • PHB

    Nutter hardly did squat; Philadelphia was naturally on a growth course because of the re-emergence of the urban core over the suburbs all over America (as baby boomers retired/downsized and bought condos) and the desire for millenials to move into the city AND the New Yorkers who could no longer afford to make it in their own City so they headed for ours and Boston/DC/etc. Nutter did all the low-hanging fruit, and that was it; look at the Schools, did he make any improvements to that situation? Nope.

    • DTurner

      I understand the sentiment, but I think you are giving his administration way too little credit here. Baltimore had the same economic climate and roughly the same location (in fact, they might have been in an even better place, given their closer proximity to DC), but they have continued to contract, while Philadelphia continued to grow.

      His inability to address the school issue (or the broader issue of his poor relations with Council) is a huge negative, but he was able to guide the city through the Recession somewhat well and laid the foundation for a better and smarter city government (L+I, aside).

    • Circa79

      State runs the schools via the src. Not sure how people don’t get that after 15 years.