5 Questions With Mayoral Hopeful Kevin Johnson

Bright Hope’s Pastor: “Let’s put Philadelphia back on the world stage.”

Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson

He’s an outsider, but not an unknown. On Sundays, Kevin Johnson stands in the pulpit of Bright Hope Baptist Church, preaching sermons to the same congregation once led by the late and much-loved U.S. Rep. Bill Gray III. Now Johnson is considering his own entry into politics, announcing this week that he is forming an exploratory committee to consider running for mayor to replace Michael Nutter.  He talked to Philly Mag about the challenges facing the city, the relationships needed to bust through gridlock, and about sharing a famous name.

You’re forming an exploratory committee to run for mayor. Simple question: Why would you be a good mayor for Philadelphia?

I believe I would be a good mayor for Philadelphia. One [reason] is because I understand the pain and the challenges that are here in the city. Every day I see and talk to people here in Philadelphia who are hurting. I am passionate about people and fighting for them, particularly our children as it relates to public education, and I’ve decided to become more involved and begin to address some of these serious issues.

One, on public education, because of the challenges we have and the draconian cuts that have been there, but also to begin to provide a vision, so we can begin to see our children fully achieve, so they can reach their full potential.

I’m also very concerned about here in Philadelphia — and Pennsylvania as a whole — when you look at job creation, we need to do more. The recent task force report that came out regarding manufacturing: When you look at it, beyond creating the tax structure, for businesses to come here and bring in manufacturing jobs, the reason we will not be successful is because of education, because education will be needed … so that people can have good jobs, but also begin to work toward healthy careers.

Lastly, I’m interested in becoming mayor because I really want Philadelphia to become — it’s a great city — but I want it to become the best city in the United States of America.

It sounds like you think education is the root issue facing the city. How do you fix the system? Because it’s been broken a long time.

I don’t think it’s one solution, I think it’s a plethora of issues that’s very complex. But where we can definitely start is working with Harrisburg to work on a fully funded (budget) formula. But two, we need to have a vision for the district. Right now, having draconian cuts to education, not knowing if schools are going to be open, parents not knowing if their children will be able to learn, not knowing if class doors are going to be open, it really raises questions of where are we? What is our vision? A vision cannot be budget cuts. A vision says, “This is where we’re going, this is how we’re going to get there.” As I look at our district right now, there are some things we can do to begin to improve it.

We have to address the issue related to the unions and the PFT [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers]. Everybody’s going to have to give; the district is going to have to give, as well as the PFT is going to have to give. But also we need to look at the children, because we focus so much on the adults until we have not focused on the children and how they learn and what is needed for them.

What that means is we need to look at, how do we do public education? For me, there’s some children who can learn best in a nine-month learning cycle. But there are other children who need extra help, because of where they live, because they need extra support systems, so we need to look at maybe, possibly, yearlong learning for our children, so they can excel, because of the big drop in what they learn at the end of June and do they retain during the summer? With yearlong learning, I think they’d retain that information, they’d continue to excel, and move forward in their lives.

You were quoted in Tuesday’s Daily News saying you thought you could succeed as an “outsider candidate,” somebody who can think outside the box. That’s kind of the way Mayor Nutter presented himself to voters a few years back. Critics might argue he had an inability to move his agenda because he was far enough outside the box that he didn’t really have the relationships on the Council. Do you have relationships on the Council? What are they like?

I think that’s one of my strengths. Yes, I’m an outsider, but I do not have the histories that are entrenched in relationships where there may be bad blood. I know all Councilpersons there, and we have not had any issues. Really, my approach is to extend a hand to them if I’m blessed enough to be the next mayor. We have to work together. I will have an open-door policy. The reality is, when you look at the major issues in our city, we should be able to solve them. There should not be this type of gridlock we see in City Council, we should be able to work together.

You attracted attention with a Philadelphia Tribune column about President Obama. It was called “A President For Everyone. Except Black People.” You had an invitation to speak at Morehouse College that went awry after that, I understand. What lessons did you learn from that incident that you would bring to the governance of what is, after all, a very diverse city?

One, I will be the mayor of everyone. In my opinion, Philadelphia is the great beacon of hope here, really for the nation of America. I also wrote an article, “Philadelphia has become the Tale of Two Cities,” really looking at the fact, when you look at the development that has taken place in some communities, you don’t see it in others. We have to find a way to bridge the gap between the white, the black, the poor, the rich. That will be my aim, to make sure we create one Philadelphia, versus two.

Kevin Johnson, the ex-NBA star, is already the mayor of Sacramento. Any worries that you get elected and become the “other” Kevin Johnson?

(Laughs.) Well, I tell folk he’ll be the one on the West Coast and I’ll the one on the east coast. But we both have the same last name.

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  • DTurner

    Interesting, but building an economic development platform on what seems to be increased investment in the public school system is not sustainable as a massive reinvestment into the education system would require a much larger tax base of companies and higher wealth residents.

    As crass as it sounds, the education system is not all that important at this point for the city’s economic growth, at least in the short-term. The skills are already in the region, but are focused in the suburbs, where education systems are already better funded than their city counterparts. Trying to outspend these suburban school districts is not going to do much, unless we start to improve the conditions for growth in the city. Look at many of the fastest growing cities in the country, DC in particular, and you’ll notice that their growth is not dependent on good grade school education, but on excellent universities and job opportunities that can pull residents and employers from the region and beyond.

    Beyond the two critical improvements we need to make: rationalizing business taxes and reigning in construction costs, we need to attract suburban jobs back into the city by emphasizing the city’s role as a regional hub for talent, meaning that commuters from all parts of the region can get here more easily than they can reach other regional jobs centers. The jobs centers in the western suburbs and the Jersey suburbs maintain a competitive disadvantage to the city by having a smaller talent pool to select their employees from, a problem that should be far less daunting for the city, which has the benefit of being the focal point of transit and highway routes for the region. Building upon this competitive advantage with pro-business policies will allow the city to reverse the trend of jobs draining out to the suburbs and could even the brain drain of talented workers from our universities.

  • Earl J

    My one question would be how come your kids are in Penn Alexander and why did you jump the line? PA is a catchment school in University City that is tough to get into even if you live there. Kevin Johnson has always lived in Overbrook Farms which is nowhere near the school.

    • PAS catchment resident

      Great question! Wouldn’t we all like to know!

  • Phillyvoter

    1) Re: “We have to find a way to bridge the gap between the white, the black, the poor, the rich. That will be my aim, to make sure we create one Philadelphia, versus two.” Perhaps its just a phrase and that is how he perceives it, but it is certainly an insensitive comment. A mayor for all the people must recognize Philadelphia’s diversity includes Asian, Latino and First People too.
    2) Can a man or woman of the cloth, presumably a person of integrity, really play the game of politics? It would seem to me that Kevin Johnson would serve the people better outside of the ring.

    • Observer

      “Presumably of integrity”? See question above about why he jumped the Penn Alexander line and took seats from kids who actually live in the catchment.

  • PhillyLocal

    Honestly, it’s all about attracting business with incentives into the city…and not the back-room, old school garbage that existing businesses got for renting in the Cira Center and other non-taxable zones. ATTRACT NEW BUSINESS. Additionally, every single union that is involved with business activity in this city (whether it be at the Convention Center, construction, transportation) has to be reformed and revamped. If members don’t like the changes, find another job. Philadelphia is a great city, but it has a local, small-town mindset because a few people stir the entire drink. We should be a world-class city with boundless potential…companies should WANT to come here. If that occurs, Philadelphia will be the comeback story of the 21st century.