The Jim Kenney Q&A: The Candidate on Empathy, Vince Fumo, Johnny Doc and Mummers

"Yes, we were Mexican bandits. I was a corkscrew. I was a raisin."

Photo Credit | Matt Rourke, AP
Jim Kenney is a candidate with huge strengths and glaring weaknesses.

He has the potential to appeal to probably a broader swathe of the electorate than any candidate in the race. Kenney offers a lot to Center City progressives, row home voters, the gay community and voting-eligible immigrants, among other constituencies. He blends old Philly character with new Philly policies and priorities better than perhaps any politician on the city’s stage today. That’s a potent combination.

On the other hand… Kenney was mentored by disgraced former State Senator Vince Fumo. He’s now allied with the powerful and controversial union boss John Dougherty. Those are affiliations—past and present—that his opponents are sure to make an issue of. There are persistent questions about Kenney’s temperament, and whether or not it’s well suited to an executive role. Kenney’s campaign also got off to a cripplingly late start.

As a mayoral candidate, Kenney is proving to be simultaneously pugnacious and somewhat more restrained than what we’ve come to expect—especially from his suddenly anodyne Twitter feed. Zzzzzzz.

Kenney sat down with Citified the day after his campaign formally launched last week for 37 minutes to discuss those questions, and others. In characteristic Kenney fashion, he talked about empathy and Vince Fumo, but also touched on rubber in Southeast Asia and that time he dressed like a Mexican bandit in the Mummer’s parade. Yeah, that happened.

In part two of this Q&A, which will run Thursday, Kenney talks policy: his plans for education, taxes, criminal justice, ethics and more.

Citified: Can you be the real you, the real Jim Kenney, and run for mayor and win?

Kenney: I can be the real me in a thoughtful way, with an eye to the fact that I need everybody I can possibly find on‑board to make it work. Sometimes, my desire to vent should, after I become mayor, probably be done in a bathroom with no one there.

Citified: But part of your electoral appeal is—

Kenney: that I’m authentic.

Citified: Yes.

Kenney: But I will tell you that, since I have announced, a lot of my stress and frustration have vanished. I am liberated and energized, and there is no one that has ever crossed me, over the years, that I have will not try to re‑engage.

I am convinced that, Ed Rendell’s model—which had flaws but also its really good points‑was his ability to have everyone he needed, to make the city move forward under the same tent. Once you come to that realization, you don’t have the luxury of holding grudges.

Citified: What changed? What’s different?

Kenney: The fact that I gave up my job, and jumped in, and I am running, and it’s for real. Some of the other frustration, some of the other venting, had to do with the fact that I talked myself out of running three times or so. Sometimes, don’t like the way things are running, and don’t like approaches to things, and then, get angry about it, try to legislate around it, but you can only do so much.

And to be the mayor, with the ability to kind of direct—not direct—but to put the issues out there that you want to address, and then, have people buy in, and work with you, fix those problems, is much more liberating than… Although, I’ve enjoyed my 23 years in council, I think I was getting to the point where I had to do something else, and this is not just a fallback position. It’s something that I’d always looked at and then, for one reason or another, backed off, and then I finally decided, when all of the pieces came together so quickly, I either do it now or I’ll be a frustrated old man.

Citified: Why do you think you’re the right person for this?

Kenney: I think, in a strange way, some of the questions that people have about my temperament I think is one of the reasons why I’d be a good mayor. I truly care what happens to people.

The thing I like about being in public office is the ability, even on a council level, to address people’s problems, whether just constituent problems, or family problems, or issues related to what’s going on in their lives, and being able to have the resources to address them. Not fix them, you can’t totally cure every ill, but the fact that you are doing something positive in a service to others is just, to me, extremely gratifying.

Citified: You came of political age in the Vince Fumo organization. He was a longtime mentor to you. Obviously, we know what happened to him. You’ve patched up things with John Dougherty—

Kenney: yes. Again, another example of having to fix relationships that you need. People may like John, or not like John, but the one thing I know is that he is passionate, and effective, and moves his resources forward to move the city forward. Of course making sure his members work, which is his primary job, but when it comes to economic development, the use of pension dollars to invest in projects, I need that, any mayor needs that kind of help.

Citified: But there are people in this city who consider both Vince and John to be sort of black hats, political black hats.

Kenney: John is John. John cares about people too, and I’ve seen him be emotionally involved in people’ lives and things, and I don’t believe that he and Vince are comparable… First of all, Vince was convicted of federal felonies, and John is still the leader of his union and a leader in the city.

Citified: So what would you say to voters who might be concerned about the fact that you were mentored by Vince?

Kenney: Well, first of all, the mentorship was effective. I became a very good legislator and a very good public servant, but I haven’t worked for the man for 24 years and we have not spoken in close to seven, and that’s not going to change. The patching up of relationships does not include that one.

Citified: Given your relationships, past or present with Vince and with John, how can you convince voters that you’re your own man?

Kenney: I’m 56 years old. I’ve been in public office for 23 years. I have two grown children. I have a house, and a mortgage, and I make my payments. I’m not in bankruptcy. I am my own man.

I’ve taken positions on issues that when I took them were not exactly the most popular issues going but, as time went on, were shown to be the right thing to do. The thing that I’ll point to, probably the earliest, was my support for domestic partnerships for city employees, which drove, god rest his soul, Cardinal Bevilacqua crazy, and church leaders crazy, and they sicced the world on me.

People in my own parish, I would go to Mass, and people would say nasty things to me when I’m kneeling at the communion rail with communion in my mouth. I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do, and it was a fair thing to do.

We weren’t forcing a social agenda on anyone. We were saying that city employees, who bargain for certain rights, like healthcare and pension, could assign the benefits to a significant other of theirs despite the sex of that person. I thought that was so inherently unfair that they couldn’t do it, simply because of who they were. I didn’t really care about the backlash because I was doing the right thing.

Fast forward 20‑some years later, it is the right thing. We have same‑sex marriage. We have fairness. We have equity as best we can. We passed another round of bills that do that for people.

So, I’ve always been my own man. I take up positions on ICE holds (holds that allow police to hold undocumented immigrants for an additional 48 hours). That’s not necessarily popular in certain communities that are sort of my base. But I have to bring the issue along, and bring folks along, and try to point to the fact that that immigrant that we have here today is the same person, or similar person, that your great‑great‑grandparents were when they were dealing with the prejudice, and racism, and ethnic bigotry that they went through…

I think my stance on issues over my career have shown that I’m independent.

Citified: Let’s talk about that a bit more. You’re an Irish, rowhome kid turned politician, who ends up embracing immigration, liberalization, decriminalization—

Kenney: Irish culture has been famous for its pursuit and support of the downtrodden, and people who are being treated unjustly. The entire Irish history is trying to get out from under the yoke of the British. Our history is replete with both courageous and sad figures that stood up and fought, so I don’t think it’s antithetical to my Irish roots.

I am telling you, one of the things that’s very important is you really need to be a student of history, your own and every other group you can read about. Because if you know your own, then you can empathize with the Mexican immigrant who can’t get a driver’s license, or can’t get a have a bank account, because no Irish need to apply, so you know that story.

You read enough about African American history in this city and in this country, you recognize that there are whole generations of people, whose contributions to this country’s greatness were ignored and denied… Why? Because they were black and what they did was not worthy of historical reference in history books and school.

If you know Southeastern Asians’ history in this country—some people, unthinking people, don’t want them here. They’re here because of US government policies in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that drove them out of their homes. They didn’t want to come here. They had beautiful land, and a beautiful country, and an idyllic life until the war. Because France, and the rice, and other types of commodities, and rubber, and who wanted to go, and rape, and pillage their countries wound up spawning revolutionaries, like the British spawned revolutionaries here, who came up and tried to overthrow their oppressor. But the people who are living in South Philly from Vietnam, they’re here because they were kind of forced here by government policy and war.

That’s what I think when you can discover empathy, because you know the history, I think you know you’re doing the right thing.

Citified: Do the guys from the block understand that or do you find you have to explain it sometimes?

Kenney: I’ll give you a good example, a real life example of something that happened to me years ago, when I was first doing domestic partnership. Of course, up until five or six years ago, I was a lifelong Mummer…

We would be sitting at the bar, watching the Eagles play—you’d better not have thin skin when you’re hanging out with your buddies who you grew up with, who know everything about you, and will put you right when you’re acting a little bit outside your head…

They start ribbing me about domestic partnership. [Kenney slips into impersonation mode briefly] “Oh, what are you, what are you gay?” All that. I laugh… And then a couple guys said to me, “No seriously,” when they had a chance to talk to me, “What’s this about? Tell me.”

So I said, “Well, I’ll give you an example. You know Steve? [Kenney says that name is fictional].”

They said. “Oh yeah. Steve’s gay. No doubt about it. Steve’s gay.”

I said, “I don’t know for sure, but yeah maybe your suppositions correct.”

I said, “If we were out all together, if we were in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, and we’re having some beers in a bar afterwards, or just anywhere as a group, and four or five guys started picking on Steve, and started giving him a hard time, and calling him names, and pushing him around, what would you do?”

“We’d kick their ass.”

I said, “That’s all I’m doing. That’s all I’m doing. I am defending people’s rights to be who they are.”

Yeah, did I get ribbing in the ’90s for that? Sure, but I don’t get ribbing anymore. We had people involved in the Mummers Parade who were long‑term consultants, and choreography, and makeup, and costuming, and music; many of them happened to be gay men.

When I first was in the club, you couldn’t talk about it, like. [Kenney switches back to impersonating his fellow Mummers here] “Don’t talk about him. You don’t say a word. No gay jokes.” Before the choreographer would come they’d say, “No gay jokes. Don’t say anything stupid. The F word’s gone. You can’t,” like they’re warning all these idiots, not idiots, but these people who were prone to say things that they want to say, to not to do it.

And at one point, the choreographer came out to all of us, and started bringing his significant other to our rehearsals, and now it’s super.

Citified: Was this a bit of an evolution for you too though? The reason I ask is because I recently Googled you and Mummers. I came across a 1991 article from the Inquirer which described you as being dressed like a Mexican bandit?

Kenney: I was… Yes, we were Mexican bandits. I was a corkscrew. I was a raisin.

Lauren Hitt (Kenney’s spokeswoman, who has not lived in Philadelphia all that long): I don’t think I understand what the Mummers are. I thought I did.

Kenney: Yeah, you don’t. You don’t. I was a Scottish highland dancer. I was a jungle drummer. Yeah, you’re a lot of things when you’re a Mummer for 35 years.

I grew up in a neighborhood that wasn’t always enlightened back in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s getting a lot better now. But inside my home, that prejudice was not allowed to be exposed by relatives, by friends of theirs. The N word was banned. The F word was banned. Not the F‑U word, the F‑A word, was banned. They weren’t allowed, their friends, if they said that word, were criticized and told not to do it…

(Part Two of the Citified Q&A with Kenney runs Thursday).