The Jim Kenney Q&A: He Declares Himself “Uniquely Philadelphian”

In part two of the Citified Q&A, Kenney defends his silence on the PGW sale and says he would build on Nutter's accomplishments on ethics: "Anybody who doesn't like it should vote for somebody else."

Jim Kenney and Mayor Nutter. | City Council Flickr

Jim Kenney and Mayor Nutter. | City Council Flickr

In part two of the Citified Q&A with mayoral candidate Jim Kenney, the former councilman defends his inaction on the proposed sale of PGW, vows to continue Mayor Nutter’s ethics reforms and pitches himself as “uniquely Philadelphian.” Part one of the Q&A, wherein Kenney talks about the time he costumed himself as a Mexican bandit (really), and lays out in more general terms his views on governing, can be found here.

Citified: Let’s talk about schools a little bit. Why is your focus on pre‑K?

Kenney: Because we need to change a generation of folks into readers as early as possible… The ability to read at grade‑level by third or fourth grade is critical, and if it’s not there at that time, it’s a downward spiral to misbehaving in class, not being attentive, bored, disruptive, drop out, hang on a corner, get in trouble, maybe go to jail.

That’s a whole downward spiral, and while I will, as mayor, go to Harrisburg and try to get our fair share of dollars, try to get a fair funding formula and work with the [School Reform Commission], or whatever governing body’s there, to get a fair funding formula, to get reimbursement for charters, there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen. I hope it does.

I think Tom Wolf is a well‑meaning, terrific, intelligent guy, not from Philadelphia, so maybe he has a better way of interpreting our needs and the deep needs of other school districts in the state, but the legislature has their own view on things and I’m not going to criticize them either, but we have to do here what we’re capable of doing.

While we’re fighting for the fairness, we have to invest our own money, and the money of our institutions and corporations. The mayor would be responsible for going out and trying to convince people, that we can get every three and four‑year‑old enrolled in a quality pre‑K in the next five years, four or five years. I’d like to have it done sooner, but I’m told that to roll it out in one year would be chaos, because there’s issues of accreditation, and there’s a bunch of stuff…

That’s why I think that’s where we can actually make a difference. I can wring my hands and complain about the lack of money from Harrisburg, and go up there, and visit everybody, which I will do anyway, and then not see any change. If we can do pre‑K, we’ve actually affected a change that we can afford… We can put $53 to $54 million a year into three‑and‑four‑year‑olds’ futures, so that in the far end of it, when they’re adults, they’re not at State Road under my care. They’re caring for their own kids in their own neighborhood and paying me taxes.

Citified: Does this notion of not waiting for Harrisburg to save us apply to K‑12 too, and what does that mean? Does it mean local control? Does it mean more local revenue?

Kenney: Yeah. It applies to K‑12 too. The other plan that we talked about was trying to better sync city and school services, sitting on a monthly basis with principals to find out what’s going on in their school, around their school. To make those folks who work in those schools, both principals, and teachers, and aides, make them feel that they’re needed, and that we admire them, and that we love what they do, and we’re not standing out in Wisconsin, telling them how bad they are and their pensions doing this and that.

These are folks who go into their pocket for art equipment, for music equipment. Principals are out there beating the bushes for companies and corporations to give them help to raise money to keep a reading teacher.

We are certainly in difficult times, and we may be for a couple years yet, because I don’t know what’s going to happen to Harrisburg, but we’ve got to make sure we take care of our own kids here the best we can with the resources we have, and I think a number like $50-55 million is a doable number and not totally outrageous.

Citified: That’s, again, on the pre‑K side.

Kenney: On the pre‑K side. I’ll tell you something I pledge to do—and people say, “Well, that’s trite and that’s just symbolism.” I’m going to lease out every one of those, and I’ve been saying that for years, every one of those (city-owned) luxury boxes at the Vet is going to get leased out, and we’re going to raise, hopefully, three to four million dollars for after‑school sports or for culture.

That’s a city asset, three to four million dollars is not a lot, but in this district, sure it is, and you can do a lot of good with that. And I think that companies would be willing to lease those boxes for games…

Citified: What about something more substantive, along the lines of changing the split on property taxes between the city and the schools, and giving schools a bigger share?

Kenney: We can look at that. We can go to Harrisburg and maybe have a discussion about relief on the uniformity clause [which requires equal taxation of all properties, unlike other states that tax homes and businesses at different rates], so we could have a separate commercial and residential real estate rate…

This is the Jerry Sweeney, Paul Levy plan, and I think it’s worth examining whether or not it’s doable, by raising property taxes on building, and lowering business taxes, and then taking some of that surplus, and giving that to the schools.

I am a smart person, but I am not the smartest person in the room all the time, or the smartest person in the city. I need to get all those folks in, starting now through the general (election), and then before inauguration, have a talk with and plan with enough folks that we have at least a game plan going through.

Does that mean that every game plan we submit is going to work? Nope, and that’s where the relationship between mayor and council come in.

If you know what makes a council member tick—and I will tell you right now, every councilperson that I’ve served with, even the one that got in trouble, was initially and continually of good will, of trying to make their districts better, of trying to make the city better. They have certain niches that they’ve put themselves in, and rightfully so, and a mayor needs to know what those niches are.

As someone who’s served with them for 23 years, I know those niches. When you talk about homeless and the downtrodden, who? Jannie Blackwell. When you talk about inclusion and sharing in the prosperity of the community, and business, and ownership, and equity? Wilson Goode.

…If I as mayor can help them get them their goals and objectives at least addressed, or resolved, or done, then when I go back to them for something big, they’re more likely to want to help you…

When Ed Rendell, he had probably eight to 10 people in his inner sanctum that created relationships and friendships with council people…

UIL is a perfect example. Whether you wanted the Gas Works to be sold or you didn’t want to Gas Works to be sold, I will say we probably should’ve had a hearing. That, I’ll admit. I didn’t stop the hearing, but we didn’t have one, and that was unfortunate, and that’s water under the bridge at this point.

Citified: Well, why didn’t you introduce the bill?

Kenney: Because that’s to me, after talking privately with all the council members involved and knowing that a hearing wasn’t coming, I wasn’t grandstanding. Maybe old Kenney would’ve grandstanded, but I’m saying to myself: I’m still thinking about running for mayor. This isn’t going anywhere because it’s totally just chaotic and no one understands it. It’s just not going anywhere, and when I talked to a majority of council members and I said, “Would you consider a hearing?” They said “No. The president doesn’t want a hearing.” So I could go in, thrown the bill up there, and make a speech, and stand on my desk. Not getting a hearing, and now I’ve got everybody else mad at me. I need them.

Now, if you had proceeded differently with the vetting of that sale, you may have gotten it done … if they had done two or three different things in tweaking it, they may have gotten it done… I think we should’ve been sitting at the table trying to figure out what you need to get us there. That’s what government is. It’s negotiation between competing good things.

Citified: Speaking of competing good things, you talked about continuing the wage tax reductions.

Kenney: Yeah, the ones we’ve been doing since 1998. We got another frozen for a couple of years understandably because of the crash.

Citified: Right. You’ve talked about business tax cuts if doable, feasible.

Kenney: No. I said that if we can figure out a way to address BIRT (the major business tax) and address some of these other things that drives businesses crazy, and still be able to provide a level of service that’s not abhorrent, yeah.

My intention between now and January, 2016, is to sit with the Jerry Sweeneys, and the Paul Levys, and the chamber, and those folks, and come up with something that’s workable.

No one gets everything they want ever, ever. So to get them in a direction, maybe more accelerated… so that they feel more relaxed, and they feel like they can invest more in the city, and to make sure that we don’t drop service levels to the point of ridiculous … there’s a balance there, and you’ve got to find the balance.

I’m not a candidate who’s going to win and say, “I’m going to lower taxes to zero.” It’s ridiculous. Or make these kind of blanket statements without having the chance to talk to every person involved and say, “Somebody’s here, somebody’s there. How do we all get them here?” That takes patience, and takes a level of skill, but it takes patience, and it takes open‑mindedness to work with everybody.

Citified: Mayor Nutter’s gotten dinged, I think it’s fair to say, for his focus on what I sort of think of as quality‑of‑life issues. I’m talking about bike lanes, the urbanism issues. He gets smacked around for that stuff. It’s sort of our version of the culture wars.

Kenney: Michael did the culture war thing with sugar tax and some of the other stuff. I will not criticize Michael Nutter for sustainability or for bike lanes.

Citified: I’m not asking you to criticize him. I’m wondering how important would those sort of issues be in a Kenney mayoralty?

Kenney: I will build on all the positives of the Nutter administration, I will tell you right off the bat. And anybody who doesn’t like it should vote for somebody else. The inspector general is staying, and if this inspector general wants to stay, I think she’s done a superb job and I would make an offer for her to be the inspector general in the Kenney Administration. She has a great group of people. She’s saved over $40 million in waste, fraud, and abuse, and I think it’s been a breath of fresh air.

Same thing with the integrity officer. God rest Joan Markman. I think the biggest thing that an integrity office can do is keep you out of trouble. Because you may make decisions that you don’t vet with someone who looks at things that way, from a law enforcement standpoint. You may think you’re doing the right thing, and you weren’t doing anything maliciously or corrupt in your mind, but there may be something where you don’t cross a T or dot an I. I think having that person in your complex I think is an important thing.

We’re not going backwards on ethics, we’re not going backward on campaign finance. What’s going on today with the issue in the Harrisburg and that pay‑to‑play thing. I called Michael Nutter yesterday on the phone from my car, and he got on. I said, “I want to thank you.” He started laughing, “What do you want to thank me for?” I said, “I want to thank you for campaign finance because guess what? That will keep us out of trouble.” It will. You play by the rules in this system, you won’t get in trouble.

Citified: Even with the relatively low fundraising totals?

Kenney: I have to make more phone calls than I ever would’ve had to make 10 years ago, but I’m going to need more people than I ever would’ve 10 years ago. People are going to have less influence on me and the administration than 10 years ago, because nobody’s writing me a $100,000 check, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing.

Citified: Decriminalization is obviously a major change for the city. What else is on the criminal justice agenda?

Kenney: The people who live there in tough neighborhoods are under siege, and they’re held hostage. When your kid has to play in the living room in the summer because you’re afraid of cross fires, there’s something wrong.

When you can’t buy your kid a bike because you’re afraid someone will knock him off and steal it, something’s wrong. Focus deterrence in that area in South Philadelphia, west of Broad Street, has worked wonders to bring down the shootings, the murders, and the lawlessness. I would give Seth Williams and the Police Department what they needed to begin to expand to other difficult and tough neighborhoods.

Citified: What about on the community police relation side? I’m talking about stop‑and‑frisk, some of the other issues we have…?

Kenney: First, our Police Department is one of the best in the country. Chuck Ramsey has been one of the best commissioners we’ve had. I think his command staff is awesome. Our captains at every level, at every district, even in the specialized units are topnotch people.

Now, if a police officer in the street or undercover police officer feels in danger, they’ve always had the right to pat somebody down. But to select somebody walking down the street who is apparently doing nothing else, based on the profile of that person; who they are, what age they are … and to have somebody stopped three or four times a month does not foster good police community relations.

The people in the community want to trust their police, they want to respect their police… I think we need to continue to better train in the academy and continue to better train while they’re working as active police officers, and continue to train supervisors to be able to deal with that on the street…

I told the police union, I think policing is the hardest thing to do in an urban environment, in an urban government. It is so fraught with danger…

Citified: One of your strengths as a candidate is that you have, potentially, a diverse coalition of voters who may support you. How do you keep them together? How do you build a candidacy where a Paul Levy-minded businessman and center city progressives and a guy from the building trades all buy in?

Kenney: …You try to be honest in your interaction with them, and be as authentic as you can be, not pull any punches. That doesn’t mean being snarky or being fresh, but to tell them what you really think, what you really feel, and what you believe. Then tell them what you think you can do, not what you want them to hear…

I’ve tried to be rational with everyone and realistic and helpful. Then when we can only get so far, I’m going to tell them that. I think I’m uniquely Philadelphian in that. I have every component of what Philadelphia’s history has been, in addition to having good relationships with the minority communities, with the ethnic minority communities.

My record is clear. There’s fairness in my heart and my desire to make people’s lives better is what drives me. I said at my (campaign) announcement, going back to the school issue, that those children are not somebody else’s kids. Every single one of those kids is ours.