In many ways, this has been the weirdest of Philadelphia mayoral elections.
We mean that not in the sense of weird things happening — honestly, with the exception of Lynne Abraham doing a face-plant at a televised debate, it seems like not much has happened at all in this campaign — but more in the following sense: This doesn’t feel like the election Philadelphia was supposed to be having right now. Yes, ours is a city with large problems — widespread poverty, a school system that utterly fails families, a tax system that repels business — but it’s also, somehow, a city on the move and on the rise, with a palpable sense of energy about it. Population is growing, construction is booming, and Philadelphians of all ages, races and income levels are feeling more optimistic about the city than they have in ages. Surely, with that as the backdrop, this should have been a mayoral election that produced a candidate — or candidates! — ready to build on the undeniable momentum of the Nutter years and at long last wrestle Philadelphia’s toughest problems to the ground.
Alas, the happy warrior we were hoping for, the sure bet to keep Philadelphia moving forward, never emerged. And so the field became, well, what the field became. There’s Milton Street. (In a spirit of generosity, that’s all we’ll say about him.) There’s Doug Oliver, talented and charismatic but also inexperienced and lacking many actual ideas. Nelson Diaz’s run has felt more like the capstone to an accomplished life than a serious bid for mayor. Lynne Abraham is a political icon, to be sure, but hardly the fresh face you’d hope for to lead us into a new age. And Anthony Williams is the scion of a storied father, but otherwise an ordinary politician.
Oh, and then there’s Jim Kenney. Or, as we’ve come to think of him, the Jim Kenneys.
The first Jim Kenney — let’s call him Original Recipe Jim — was your standard-issue Philly pol, a rowhouse guy reared at the knee of Vince Fumo. Original Recipe Jim was smart enough — and he had a candor that could make him kind of hilarious — but he also seemed combative and parochial and more interested in protecting The System than in helping Philadelphia progress. He was good enough for Council, maybe, but that was about it.
In recent years, though, a second Jim Kenney emerged. Like the old Jim, New Jim could be grumpy and gruff, but he was surprisingly interested in ideas. What’s more, he seemed acutely aware that the world — and the city — were changing, and that he needed to be changing with them. New Jim appreciated University City and Rittenhouse as much as he did Two Street, and he got behind issues — immigration, LGBT rights, the decriminalization of pot — that undoubtedly made friends of Original Recipe Jim say, “WTF?” New Jim didn’t quite give us the thrill up the leg that Obama gave Chris Matthews, but he did give us … what’s the word? … hope.
TO A LARGE EXTENT, the fundamental question of the current election is this: If elected, which of the two Jim Kenneys would show up in the mayor’s office? The Jim Kenney who’d lead us forward? Or the Jim Kenney who’d send us careening backwards to the bad old days of city government?
Frustratingly, the last few months haven’t really given us a definitive answer. Indeed, in many ways we’ve gotten the campaign we feared we’d get — largely uninspiring, devoid of big visions, creative ideas and concrete solutions to Philadelphia’s biggest problems. (It says something that the most crafted and thought-through plan for school funding has come from a non-candidate, Sam Katz, who’s only likely to jump into the race if Tony Williams wins the Democratic primary and Katz can mount a credible charge as an independent.)
Still, Jim Kenney has shown enough in this campaign to make us believe that of the candidates before us, he’s the best choice.
For starters, there’s the basic matter of being able to run the city effectively on a day-to-day basis — which is largely about attracting talented people to your administration. Even in his Original Recipe incarnation, Kenney was known for having a strong Council staff — smart, competent grown-ups who were good at doing their jobs. That’s continued during this campaign, in which Kenney has surrounded himself with bright folks and run the sharpest operation by far. It gives us hope that a Mayor Kenney would bring into City Hall an energetic and talented mix of people — ideally, a blend of policy wonks, business types and seasoned political pros — who are open to new ideas and can make the city run smoothly and efficiently.
Kenney also shows the most promise when it comes to leadership — the ability to get people excited and unite them behind a common cause. His current campaign is an intriguing coalition of rowhouse Philadelphians, young progressives and a cadre of African-Americans, and our fingers are crossed that Kenney can get Philadelphia as a whole to rally behind him. (In contrast, leadership is where Tony Williams has most disappointed us. For the last two years, he’s been the presumptive front runner, having amassed party support and the financial backing of three jillionaires from the suburbs. In short, he could have made himself inevitable; instead, his inability to excite people has kept him from closing the deal.)
One final factor that tips us toward Jim Kenney is timing. Successful political leadership is often about the right person showing up in the right place at the right moment. Ed Rendell finally got elected mayor just when Philadelphia needed an Ed Rendell — someone equal parts fixer and cheerleader — to be mayor. Similarly, Jim Kenney feels right for this moment — a man who can continue Philadelphia’s transformation from old to new because he himself has transformed from old to new.
KENNEY WAS THE LAST candidate to get into this race, and he only did so after Ken Trujillo dropped out (creating space for another non-African-American candidate) and after Kenney himself secured the backing — i.e., the money, clout and ground troops — of electricians union boss John Dougherty.
Doc, of course, is the elephant in the room in this entire conversation. First, there’s what he symbolizes — the outsized role that labor has played in Philadelphia’s economy and power structure, and the potential that a Kenney administration could be overly beholden to unions, which have widely endorsed him in this race. If that’s the case — if Jim Kenney puts union agendas ahead of the rest of the city — then Philadelphia is likely to lose all the ground it’s gained in recent years, and then some. Labor — not only the building trades, but also municipal workers and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — certainly should have a voice in the city, but they can’t be the massive obstacles to change that they’ve been for too long.
Then there’s Doc himself, whose aggressive tactics and backroom deals have long symbolized the narrow, self-interested way in which power tends to operate in Philadelphia. So is a vote for Kenney ultimately just a vote to let Johnny Doc do whatever the hell he wants? The most honest answer to that question is … no one knows. But there are two reasons we believe the chance is worth taking.
First is Doc’s own behavior of late. In recent years he, too, has shown signs that he’s maturing — that he recognizes the best way to serve his union members is to help build a Philadelphia that prospers as a whole. His investment in the important East Market project — and, even more, his role in kicking the carpenters union out of the Convention Center and restoring some level of sanity to the way that operation runs — gives us hope there just might be a new Doc. Our other bet is that even if New Doc is a mirage, New Jim isn’t. That Mayor Jim Kenney will be willing to stand up to Johnny Doc — and others — when that’s what’s needed to move the entire city forward.
On a personal level, the most appealing thing about Jim Kenney has always been how human he is. (At least before his campaign handlers got to him, Kenney’s Twitter feed read like a direct line to his soul, chronicling every emotion — from rage to elation — that passed through him on a daily basis.) And that may ultimately be what we’re putting our faith in. One of the great things about human beings is their ability to change, to grow, to rise to the occasion when that’s what’s truly required. Jim Kenney is proof — we think — that a man doesn’t have to be at 57 what he was at 35.
All elections are about hope, and this one more than most. So as we endorse Jim Kenney in the Democratic primary, we simultaneously challenge him: Bury the old Jim Kenney once and for all, and give us the New Jim Kenney that a New Philadelphia so desperately needs.