Candidates Unimpressive at First Mayoral Forum

They're still finding their feet.


Philadelphia’s mayoral candidates assembled on a single stage Thursday morning for what was the first public forum of the 2015 election. It showed.

As a group, the candidates were uneven and not particularly focused. There was only one sharp exchange, between Jim Kenney and Lynne Abraham over the question of pensions. There were some solid answers, and some lousy ones, but most were mediocre and forgettable.

Let’s go candidate by candidate.

Lynne Abraham

Abraham was fine. She got a lousy seating assignment, at the far right end of the group, and she seemed to be out of the action for much of the forum. One of Abraham’s real strengths is the passion and verve she can flash on the campaign trail, but I didn’t see a lot of that today.

There was one key exception, and it provided the most interesting moment of the debate. When asked how she’d address the city’s momentous pension problem, she went after Jim Kenney for legislation he championed in 2007 that requires the pension fund to boost payments to pensioners when the fund outperforms its investment goals.

Bad idea, Abraham said: “I’d ignore it or seek to override it or in some way to remove it.” A solid blow on a valid policy difference.

But Abraham undercut herself by next saying she didn’t understand why city workers weren’t all in 401(k)s. Apart from alienating a lot of city workers with a line that felt like a throwaway, she glided past the last seven years and Mayor Nutter’s long fight to do just that, on a far more modest scale with new hires (with not much success, really). It was an overreach, and an unnecessary one, because Kenney does have a real vulnerability on the pension question.

Jim Kenney

When his turn came around, Kenney punched back. “Vested pension rights are sacrosanct… you have to negotiate the changes, you have to negotiate with your workforce, across the table, reasonable conditions of their employment… if you want to have a 401(k) that’s required, then you’re gong to have to give up something in return,” he said.

Then he took a swipe at Abraham, without mentioning her by name. Kenney said he opposed DROP, the controversial retirement perk (the reality is Kenney’s record on DROP is a bit more complicated). “I guess someone up here”—that would be Abraham—”will have to explain their DROP payment and how much they get a month in their pension.” (Abraham collected $370,361 from DROP, for the record.)

Otherwise, Kenney was a bit lackluster. He had solid answers to questions about pre-kindergarten education, as he should, given that it’s one of the few platform planks he’s rolled out. But he had few other memorable moments.

Anthony Williams

Williams has taken hits for his mushy answers to direct questions, and that quality was on display again Tuesday morning. But what some of Williams’ critics might not realize is that, in the right setting, crowds respond to Williams, mush-mouth or no mush-mouth.

He was in friendly terrain—the forum was hosted by the Business Association of West Parkside, in Williams’ West Philly—and he had a few more applause lines than the other contenders. He did well on questions about retraining ex-offenders (lead by example, Williams said, noting that a third of his office is staffed by “returning citizens”). He also managed to hit his campaign theme of a “unified Philadelphia”—code for focusing more attention on the neighborhoods—better than some of the other candidates.

Williams emerged largely unscathed, which has to count as a win for him, given the volume of questions about education and the attacks he’s absorbed from the candidates over his positions on charter schools this week.

Doug Oliver

This was a solid showing for the 40-year-old Oliver, far and away the youngest candidate in the race. He passed the plausibility test up there, appearing to have as solid a grasp of the issues as the other candidates (which is, I realize, not the highest praise ever). Oliver, who’s been a communications pro for most of his career, seemed comfortable and not remotely intimidated. He cracked that Milton Street probably meant to say “Jay-Z” when he name-checked somebody called A-Z, and he snuck in a cutting closing remark as the forum wrapped up. He acknowledged his competitors had more government experience than he does, then said: “The question is, how’s that working for you?…. I think it’s time we tried something different.”

You can get your own sense of Oliver on Monday evening, as he’s leading off Philadelphia magazine’s Candidate Conversations series. Come on down to Venturef0rth, an amazing co-working spot off Callowhill, and watch Citified’s Holly Otterbein grill Oliver and get a sense of whether or not he belongs in the big leagues. The event is free and open to the public. Register here.

Nelson Diaz

Diaz is setting himself up as the race’s true progressive, a civil rights warrior with a proven track record at the local and federal level. He was almost as animated as Milton Street, and at one point he said Philadelphia has “the worst” educational system in the U.S. That’s a bold choice of words for someone running to be mayor.

Diaz was probably at his strongest on schools, but he’s not a fan of charter schools and there were a lot of kids from a nearby charter in the audience, so some of his lines on education fell flat with the crowd. “The real problem is you get less than $11,000 per kid in Philadelphia and $22,000 in lower Merion. Who needs the education more?” he said at one point. What Diaz didn’t offer was many ideas on how to close that funding gap, though the same can be said for the other candidates as well.

Milton Street

Milton Street is going to be a real factor in this race. Believe it. He was animated. He was loud. He dominated the room. And his shtick works for some voters. Street got as much or more applause as any of the candidates. He’s been at this a long time, and he knows how to connect with a crowd. His issues? Violence. Violence. Also, violence.