The (New) Jim Kenney for Mayor

An endorsement by the editors of Philadelphia magazine.

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

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.

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  • Yochi

    Very unfortunate decision. For this city to thrive, it must become a competitive player in the market for jobs. Having a union stooge for mayor isn’t the solution

    • FishtownIndy

      Doc literally just went against other unions to help make the city for competitive.

      • Yochi

        So, you think that if elected, a guy who has a history of supporting payouts to the unions via unaffordable pensions will be able to stand up to the unions and to his chief financial backer?

        • FishtownIndy

          I don’t think you can make Philadelphia a better place to live by lowering pay and benefits for city employees. You don’t get a more professional workforce by doing that no matter what industry you are talking about. Kenney and Doc have shown flexibility recently in terms of the private sector, and I don’t really think of Doc’s guys on Council (Henon, Squilla, Neilson) as being a part of the problem in terms of making the city more attractive for jobs and business.

          • Yochi

            And how will he manage to deal with the pension crisis? By raising benefits? Where is the fiscal responsibility?

          • FishtownIndy

            Look at the job posting for the city. All city jobs have low pay compared to the private sector and other local municipalities. If you cut the pension benefits, the quality of workforce will decline even further. You deal with the pension crisis by growing the local economy and ending the ten-year tax abatement.

          • Yochi

            Grow the economy? Sounds like the typical politician’s solution. A bit utopian no?

          • lk1066

            It’s not utopian, or impossible to grow the economy. We need to shift the focus from subsidizIng wealthy people and real estate developers to focusing on training workers and attracting businesses outside the high-education, high-tech sector. Really work at it, not pay lip-service while only serving the desires of the wealthy and well-educated. We need a more well-rounded economy, and Jim Kenney is not adverse to working with working people.

            He also is committed to public education at the K-12 level, not just colleges, and not just to charter and other private schools.

          • People are gonna need money to Live in their old age. Do you think the cost of living will be Lower in 25 years?

          • lk1066

            Thank you for your sanity. There is a wrong idea out there that government employees, not matter what they do or how qualified they are, are either incompetent or overpaid. This is just not true. One of the reasons the public can get away with having highly educated people in public service has always been that the benefits make up a bit for the lower pay….So often, people in the private sector will say things like public employees shouldn’t have a pension since I don’t, and should just have to live off their 401ks….The problem is, their salaries aren’t as high as they are in the private sector for the same job, so in order to be compete and pay them enough to fund their own retirement, public employees are going to have to be paid a lot more…Oh, but people also don’t want to pay them more either…..

          • lk1066

            Agreed. Making older people poor, or not giving people the incentive to work in public jobs, does not help the city or any of it’s citizens.

        • Why not, if he’s Already elected?

    • lk1066

      I don’t think Jim Kenney will be anybody’s stooge….And unlike some people, he is not just interested in replacing poor people with rich people, creating jobs in specialized fields, or giving away public control to private entities, for better or mostly worse. If you have a constructive idea, take it to him.

      • defiore14

        Once a stooge always a stooge ~ with leopard spots! Jeremiah 13:23 – “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.”

        • lk1066

          Jim is not evil, and he has improved over time. Intelligent people with open minds may change them sometimes.

      • Just make sure you elect a City Council that will work with him.

        • lk1066

          I don’t think this will be a problem with Jim Kenney. He is much more aligned with City Council’s focus than Mayor Nutter is, and he’ll work well with Council President Clark.
          I think he gets along with everyone as a matter of course and isn’t disagreeable when he disagrees. As someone who sometimes attends and participates at City Council meetings, there was general agreement among council members on most things that impacted the city as a whole (including not selling PGW to a private company), although the media liked to try to turn everything into a personal disagreement between one or two Council persons and the Mayor, or simply GOP-like obstruction by the Council, which just isn’t the case. The fact is, Council, unless it changes radically, will probably agree a lot more with Jim Kenney than it did with Mayor Nutter.

  • barrygster

    Makes sense, but Kenney’s continued support of the pension bonuses really tank tank the idea that “new Kenney” is going to do anything substantial.

  • Wok brownshirt forum censor

    Wait til the next Goldtex starts developing again, if any do. See how both react and if they intimidate.

  • Calvin Hobbes

    This just seems to be an answer to the Inquirer’s endorsement, hoping to differentiate yourself from them as you have long sought to do. You fail to mention once(!!) the two greatest problems facing Philadelphia, pensions and jobs. You hang your endorsement on vague notions of progressivism (for the all the problems that Philadelphia faces, is marijuana decriminalization really the best example of someone willing to think progressively?) and seem more infatuated with your hope of what Jim Kenney can evolve into versus what has shown he is (for better and for worse). In short, you sound like a baseball scout salivating over a high school prospect, projecting them out 4 years from now. I don’t know about you, but the Mayor of Philadelphia is too important of a position to risk on projection and uncertainty.

    • Moderate News Buff

      We NEED Sam Katz, not another pawn for the leftist-leaning unions. Katz can help bring more credibility to the city, which even leftists are aware, is a very NEPOTISM-saturated enclave. It is NOT what you know, BUT who you know!

  • Observatory

    This was entirely predictable. Philly Mag has been leaning this way right from the start. Hey, if you hang out in center city long enough (no matter your pedigree) and you’re “sponsored” by the right power brokers, Philly Mag just might endorse you, too.

  • Frank

    How is there no better candidate for mayor? Is the job that bad? Can we give Nutter a 3rd term?

  • NateFried

    “KATZ KATZ KATZ KATZ KATZ KATZ,” Maybe he will come save the day!!!! What do you do with two “meh” democratic candidates? Call on Katz who has shown his DEEP love for the city with his excellent award-winning documentaries about the city and well written thorough plan for how to fix the school system (much more than we are getting from Kenney or Williams).

  • lk1066

    I read this article and many of the comments below. I have dealt with the “New Jim’ described above, and I have always found Jim to be open-minded and genuine, as well as committed to the city and it’s people. I don’t think he’ll act beholden to any group over the interests of the city and the rest of the people in it. He has a refreshingly positive attitude about the city which, along with his experience, will go a long way to helping the city.

  • EcoMom

    Check out Jim Kenney’s Environmental and Transportation Policy and the addition of three extraordinary environmental advocates to his team today!

  • Julie Greenberg

    I met with Jim Kenney about a week ago to see if he was willing to take on the greatest moral/political/economic issue of our day: creating an inclusive vision for green jobs in a green city. He seemed really open-minded, smart and ready to see the interconnections between poverty, health, education and protecting a sustainable earth. Rabbi Julie Greenberg

    • defiore14

      Rabbi ~ Jeremiah 13:23 ~ “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” JIM KENNEY CAN’T REMOVE HIS SPOTS. PLEASE DO NOT BE HOODWINKED BY HIS CHARADE.

      • One N word and you’re unfit for office?
        Hell, we All use the N word in private, even the black leaders.
        What N word were we talking about again? And is it interchangeable with Thug?
        Too Soon?

  • defiore14

    Why didn’t you ask Jim Kenney what his favorite “N” word is? Are you afraid to find out? Is he willing to explain it?

  • No More Nutter. And no matter What ‘new ideas’ Jim Kenney may have, he’ll Still have to run them by his co-mayor, Darryl Clark. It’s similar to the President trying to get Congress on board to fund those ideas, vague as they may be.

  • Meenal Raval

    And the even (Newer) Jim Kenney gets into solving the climate crisis. Take a look at his recently announced energy policy, found here: He’s definitely the best man for the job.

  • VoteforReform

    I believe Jim Kenney is the best candidate to continue to move Philadelphia forward. I am hopeful that in 4 years we will see more progress under his leadership.