Jim Kenney: Philly Must “Take Control of Its Own Destiny”

Candidate calls for expanded Pre-K, without many powerful friends at his side.

Nearly a half-century ago, Jim Kenney walked through Philadelphia City Hall’s doors for the first time as a 9-year-old kid to watch his father, a firefighter, get promoted to captain. The ceremony was held in the mayor’s reception room and attended by then-Mayor James Tate.

On Wednesday, Kenney stood in the same room and launched his campaign for mayor.

In a tight, 12-minute speech, Kenney, a former at-large City Councilman, laid out his vision for Philadelphia and proposed a handful of policy ideas. The audience was a mix of health care workers, electricians, lobbyists, journalists, a few power players (Councilman Mark Squilla, firefighters union president Joe Schulle, District 1199C president Henry Nicholas), and other assorted Philadelphians. Noticeably absent: the rest of City Council, which effusively praised Kenney when he stepped down from his Council seat last week, and powerful electricians union chief John Dougherty, who called Kenney a “dark horse” candidate and was there for his last day as a lawmaker.

Kenney’s speech seemed pitched at New Philly, Old Philly, progressives and the labor movement simultaneously — not usually a cohesive bunch, and yet somehow one that Kenney effectively courted while on Council (and which his mayoral bid now depends on).

He talked about growing up in “a typical South Philadelphia neighborhood, a typical rowhouse neighborhood” where residents shoveled each other’s doorsteps after snowstorms and were sure to let a kid’s mom know if they were up to no good.

“I think in many ways we have to get back to that model,” he said, “where we truly, honestly care about each other.”

At the same time, he hailed the diversity of modern Philadelphia, and said the city would never reach its true potential “unless we start to embrace, understand, respect and honor each other.” He called for an end to an old-school Philly defeatism: “I want to eliminate the ‘Philly Shrug’ from our vocabulary. … I want to be a can-do city that we all know we are.”

He spoke about the need for Philly to become more self-reliant and “take control of its own destiny” (which, we’re just spitballing here, maybe comes from him watching city officials beg the state legislature for extra money for the schools every year, only to always end up disappointed?).

Also, Kenney outlined four policy proposals (again, all within 12 minutes!), some more detailed than others:

  • He said Philadelphia’s schools should “become the centerpieces of activity in every neighborhood in the city,” where students not only learn and go to after-school programs, but also where adults receive job training.
  • He wants to continue the city’s reduction of wage taxes, and accelerate those cuts if possible. Kenney also wants to explore business tax reductions.
  • He pitched a partnership between the city government, local businesses and the Community College of Philadelphia, in which college courses would be designed to conform to the hiring needs of employers. “When [students] choose these classes, they’ll have the confidence that they’re getting trained in a degree that employers are actually looking for,” Kenney said.
  • He proposed expanding publicly-funded, “high-quality” pre-K in Philadelphia. Under his plan, pre-K would be offered to 3- and 4-year-olds in the city whose parents do not currently receive state aid, but who nonetheless cannot afford to pay for it themselves. His campaign said the proposal would cost $53 million annually, and would be phased in incrementally over five years. He envisions the cost being split between taxpayers, universities, businesses and nonprofits, but did not specify how the city would pay for its share. “If we can’t find the money to spend this on these children … we should be ashamed of ourselves,” he said.

On a stylistic level, Kenney’s speech felt a little flat. Sure, it had a few quippy sound bites and some warm, nostalgic anecdotes, but it simply didn’t compare to the raw, passionate talk he gave last week as he resigned from City Council. His campaign kickoff was, at times, stiff. It featured a less emotional Kenney than we’re used to.

Maybe he used up his best material last week? Or perhaps Kenney is attempting to tamp down his inner Chris Christie — which, while entertaining and appealing, could also prove to be a major liability? (His Twitter feed, usually a wild, magical thinghas become noticeably more staid in the last few days.)

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, says the two speeches are apples and oranges. His Council speech was extemporaneous, the swan song of a 23-year-long career; his kickoff speech had to be a little more scripted because he was laying out policy ideas. Fair point.

Plus, Kenney’s mayoral bid is off to a late start, and faces a number of challenges. Maybe he’s eager to start campaigning in earnest.

“I am absolutely certain that we can do this,” said Kenney at the close of his speech. “Let’s go out and let’s get to work.”