In 2016, Jim Kenney Reminded Us How Effective a Seasoned Politician Can Be

Philly's mayor — the ultimate insider governing in the Year of the Outsider — had quite a first year. But there are risks ahead.
Illustration by Nathan Arizona

Illustration by Nathan Arizona

Jim Kenney doesn’t want to be here. It’s mid-October, and we’re meeting in his sprawling office in City Hall to talk about something that should make him want to regale me like Homer: his first year as mayor.

The year 2016 may have been a disillusioning, disgusting, degrading slog for many Americans, but for Kenney, it was phenomenal. He shoved a soda tax through City Council, making Philadelphia the country’s first big city to pass such a levy and crushing the omnipotent beverage lobby in the process. He convinced lawmakers to spend a boatload of cash on his campaign priorities: expanded pre-K, community schools, and a $500 million overhaul of city parks, libraries and rec centers. He also persuaded 53 percent of Philadelphians that he’s doing a good job.

But Kenney isn’t happy, at least not at the moment. “There are good days, and there are bad days,” he tells me when I greet him. His eyes are bloodshot. His shirt and tie don’t match.

He sits down and joylessly picks at a bowl of greens, and I ask him to describe his top three accomplishments so far — a softball stuffed with down feathers. “The beverage tax is huge,” he says. “Um, I think a good working relationship with Council is another. And the continued diversification of our government.” His answer clocks in at 27 seconds.

This is how it goes for a while, until I ask him to explain the hardest part of the job. It’s a question most politicians would answer quickly and dishonestly; Kenney gives me a 10-minute reply that’s so frank, I wonder if I should bill him afterward.

For starters, he hates that he has no privacy: “I love occasionally going to New York just to be anonymous.” He doesn’t like the special treatment, either — the chauffeur, the black SUV, the security guards. “What am I, the king of Salem?” The constant expectation he’ll give speeches is a drag, too: “If I go someplace and I don’t have to speak, I’m kind of happy.” In fact, even greeting fans can be hard for him: “Sometimes it’s late in the day, and it’s been a long day, and people want that last selfie. And you just gotta smile and do it.”

Eventually, Kenney seems to realize he’s strayed quite a ways from his talking points. “I know it comes with the job, and I’m not complaining about it,” he says unconvincingly. “It’s just one of those things that’s hard to get used to.”

In other words, Kenney’s prickliness on this cool fall day is nothing personal. It’s just that the public part of the gig — giving speeches, talking to reporters, shaking hands — is clearly his least favorite. Some politicians, like Ed Rendell and Bill Clinton, get high on that stuff. But Kenney is more akin to Hillary Clinton or John Street: He prefers to stay away from the cameras, meet with his staff, and try to get shit done.

Kenney is also, like HRC and Street, a product of the Democratic machine. He’s been in politics his entire adult life, and nearly every labor union and elected official in Philadelphia endorsed him in 2015. But he didn’t shy away from his ties to the establishment. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Kenney literally campaigned on being a political insider: He argued that his relationships would enable him to put an end to the gridlock that had come to define politics everywhere from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Washington, D.C.

A year later, it looks like Kenney might have been onto something. Even though the beverage lobby spent an eye-popping $11 million to try to defeat his soda tax, an overwhelming majority in Council voted for it. There’s no denying that happened in part because Kenney has longstanding relationships with both lawmakers and controversial figures like bare-knuckled electricians union leader John Dougherty. “The soda tax victory would not have been achieved were he not a veteran politician,” says Rendell. “The campaign against it was quite effective.”

In an era in which Americans are so revolted by insiders that they just gave the nuclear codes to a reality TV star with fascist tendencies and zero political experience, could Jim Kenney possibly help restore the public’s faith in politicians? Could he make the much-needed case that expertise, compromise and relationships are, occasionally, a good thing? Or will his reluctance to step outside the bubble of City Hall — and an FBI investigation into some of his closest allies — leave us all the more disappointed?

KENNEY DID THINGS in the 2015 campaign that are almost unfathomable today.

He praised John Street, who oversaw one of Philly’s most corruption-riddled administrations, because Street was skilled at pushing bills through City Council. He defended Johnny Doc — who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get him elected — as “passionate” and “effective.” Kenney also had to contend with the kind of baggage that comes with being a decades-long politician: He’d been mentored by Vince Fumo, one of the most unsavory characters in the city’s history. And in past decades, he’d voted more like a conservative than a progressive.

It’s hard to imagine any of that flying in the Year of the Outsider. But Kenney had weak opponents in 2015. After eight years of Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphians were also willing to give an old-school politician a chance. Sure, the city had become safer, bigger and more ethical under Nutter, but he hadn’t accomplished the sweeping change he’d promised as a candidate. That was partly due to the economic downturn of 2008. But it was also because he had an icy relationship with City Council. He was so detested by lawmakers that by the end of his second term, they wouldn’t even schedule a hearing on the very last major bill he proposed as mayor. That’s cold.

Harrisburg was just as mind-numbingly dysfunctional at the time: Democrat Tom Wolf was suffering through the longest budget impasse in Pennsylvania’s modern history; his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, hadn’t had much more success with the state legislature, even though it was controlled by his own party. Things were so bad that Corbett, who slashed most pork-barrel spending from the state budget, publicly admitted it would have been easier to get things done if he’d kept the gravy train going. In that environment, Kenney was, oddly enough, a rebuke to the status quo.

Today, everyone from former mayors to business leaders to anti-poverty advocates applauds Kenney for ending the Cold War in City Hall. “It’s a breath of fresh air,” says Rob Wonderling, head of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Darrell Clarke, the City Council president who stood so squarely in Nutter’s way that it was easy to forget they were both Democrats, now jokes that he and Kenney hang out so often that “it’s sometimes a little more than you would actually like.” In all seriousness, Clarke says, “The Mayor has done a real good job in communicating to members of City Council. It’s been quite successful.”

How did Kenney do it? “You show people respect,” the Mayor tells me. “Council members are individually elected people, and each one of them stands for at least one or two major objectives in their careers. Having people be effective in those objectives always bodes well when you need them to do something for you.”

That’s an unapologetically transactional view of politics — something that can be as benign as trading votes or can mutate into quid pro quo. Kenney argues that it’s cynical to expect the latter. Lawmakers “have objectives and goals,” he says. “I ask, ‘Where do those objectives and goals mesh with the administration?’ And even where they don’t, I try to give them a fair ear and sometimes see things as they see them.”

There’s more to Kenney’s m.o. than mutual backscratching. After seeing legislators knock Nutter for allegedly leaving them in the dark on everything from budget plans to city events, Kenney tries to keep them in the know. “He’s very open and transparent,” says Councilman Derek Green. “He’s constantly reaching out to members.” Kenney also goes to sometimes absurd lengths to give them credit. I’ve seen him praise a lawmaker for voting for a bill when in reality that legislator fought it tooth-and-nail until he had no choice but to relent.

Nowhere has Kenney’s study of government proven more valuable than during the battle over the soda tax. Nutter tried, and failed, to sell a tax on sugary drinks as a public-health initiative. Kenney pitched it as a way to raise money for education and the city’s parks system — an approach that he describes, of course, as a “group idea.” Health experts around the country thought it was brilliant. “Americans don’t like it when you tell them what they can eat, drink and smoke. But if you talk about rec centers, libraries, parks, pre-K and community schools, they got it,” says Kenney, adding, “You learn by other people’s mistakes.”

That wasn’t the only reason it was clever. Lawmakers love nothing more than a ribbon-cutting in their district, and the renovation of dozens of parks, libraries and rec centers, as well as the opening of 25 community schools, guarantees photo ops for years to come. It also gives Kenney the power to sprinkle goodies to his most loyal soldiers on Council over the next three years — and withhold them from anyone who gets in his way.

That’s not all: The Kenney administration now has oodles of contracts and jobs to hand out. One of two winners of the multimillion-dollar contract to manage the city’s pre-K expansion has ties to new Congressman Dwight Evans, who was among Kenney’s most powerful allies during the mayoral election. And more than 300 construction jobs stand to go to — you guessed it — members of Johnny Doc’s building trades.

“ALL OF Y’ALL know each other!”

“All of you are in bed with each other!”

“Anti-blackness anywhere is anti-blackness everywhere!”

Kenney is only a few minutes into a televised speech to kick off OutFest, Philadelphia’s big gay pride event, when protesters commandeer his podium. They say he hasn’t done enough to fight racism in the community, and urge him to can the city’s director of the Office of LGBT Affairs. With the cameras rolling, the activists accuse the Mayor of keeping quiet because business owners in the Gayborhood contributed to his campaign. Kenney, with sweat rolling down his red face, says a couple words, then leaves.

A few days later, I ask one of the protesters to assess Kenney’s first year in office.

Asa Khalif, the face of the Black Lives Matter movement in Philadelphia, has clashed with Kenney since the mayoral election. That’s why I’m a bit surprised when he tells me that personally speaking, he likes the Mayor. He says he got to know him when he would call Councilman Kenney to get constituent services for the elderly in his neighborhood. “I knew I could call his office and the problem would be attended to. I’ve always respected him for that,” he says.

But Khalif also believes Kenney has broken his promise to end stop-and-frisk, a policing strategy that’s come under fire across the country. If the Mayor doesn’t reverse course, Khalif says, he won’t have enough African-American support to win reelection. (According to the ACLU, blacks and Latinos are disproportionately subjected to unconstitutional searches under stop-and-frisk.) Khalif says the reason Kenney has gone back on his word is obvious: The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed him last spring. “Deals were made,” he says.

Kenney, for his part, says he never meant he would cease all police stops; instead, he wants to end “unconstitutional pedestrian stops.” Wherever the truth lies, this represents a conundrum for Kenney: The fact that he’s an elected official skilled at retail politics is precisely why Khalif thinks he’s an okay guy — and perhaps why, as he told me, he’s willing to give the Mayor a few more months to abandon stop-and-frisk before drowning him in protests. But it’s those exact same ties to the establishment that, to Khalif, cast Kenney’s decisions in a dark light.

Stop-and-frisk isn’t the only Kenney choice the public will likely scrutinize more harshly because of his connections. Labor contracts for police, firefighters and the city’s white-collar unions need to be renegotiated next year; all three groups endorsed him. “The contracts with the municipal workers are going to be tough,” Rendell predicts. “Because on one hand, they gave him rabid support. But on the other hand, he’s got to get spending on pensions in line.”

Then there’s the powder keg that is Kenney’s relationship with John Dougherty. The FBI raided Doc’s South Philly rowhome and union hall this summer, as well as the offices of Councilman Bobby Henon, a key Kenney ally and the former political director of the electricians union. Shortly thereafter, the feds delivered search warrants to James Moylan, the man Kenney appointed to head the city’s zoning board — and who happened to be Dougherty’s chiropractor. He later resigned. Kenney’s campaign finance records have been subpoenaed, too.

It’s too early to know whether there’s any fire beneath the smoke. No one has been charged, and the FBI has gone after Doc before and come up empty. Kenney, meanwhile, says he has no reason to believe he’s the target of an investigation and hasn’t hired a personal attorney. But the situation has left a cloud over City Hall, nonetheless.

Perhaps all this is why despite Kenney’s high job approval ratings, so many Philadelphians don’t know what to make of him. Twenty-four percent of residents — a record number — said they didn’t know or declined to answer when asked to rate his performance, according to a poll by Pew. The figure was even higher among African-Americans, who carried him to victory in 2015: Nearly three of 10 hadn’t made up their minds about Kenney. (Fifty-four percent, meanwhile, say he’s doing a good job.)

When I ask Kenney about the perception that he’s compromised by these relationships, he says he’s in a lose-lose situation. During his campaign, he built one of the most diverse coalitions in the city’s modern history — made up of everyone from black elected officials to the mostly white building trades to the LGBTQ community to clergy members to feminists — and he’s trying to keep it together, he says: “What’s frustrating sometimes is that when you’re actually all in the same boat, all on the same team, rowing in the same direction, then they say, well, you’re too close to that person. I mean, I don’t think it’s good for the city for me to be fighting with a lot of people, either.”

Kenney is partly right: The public is fickle. We trust outsiders with no record more than we should, and we have an unhealthy aversion to compromise and normal politics. But the Mayor needs to do more than just complain. Despite his disdain for the more public parts of his job, he needs to make the case that there’s value in having experience, making allies, and working toward consensus. He also needs to show — really show — that he isn’t compromised by all of that. Sometimes, he needs to make tough decisions that his friends don’t like. And, most importantly, he can’t let himself become corrupted by them.

Philadelphia is where American democracy was born. Wouldn’t it be great if it were where we learn to believe in it again?

Published as “The Insider” in the December 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.