Is Jim Kenney the Face of New Philadelphia?
I thought there would be glad-handing. I thought there would be exuberant, sweaty-palmed high fives. I thought there would be clusters of well-wishers leaning in for brush-with-fame selfies. I had visions of Jim Kenney, 56, the mayoral candidate and former city councilman, in a slightly too tight Neumann-Goretti sweatshirt, smiling as he greeted supporters tromping up the metal rafters in Philadelphia University’s gymnasium.
This is what I imagined when Kenney invited me to join him for the girls’ Catholic League semifinals in mid-February. In fact, when we’d met a few weeks earlier at a campaign appearance in Fishtown, he’d said, “Liz! I hear we’re going to be dating!”
But when I walk into the brightly lit gym a few minutes before the basketball game begins, there’s no animated Kenney klatch. Instead he sits with just one campaign staffer, looking stiff and formal in jacket and tie. He doesn’t make eye contact when I sit next to him, though I’m so close I can see the down on his pink cheeks.
This Jim isn’t much like the Kenney behind the antic @JimFKenney Twitter feed, which, until the mayoral campaign, was an ongoing source of surprise and hilarity.
Let me get this right, Leslie Stahl of 60 mins is 72? GTFOOH! Great journalist and sorry, smokin.
So sad sometimes.
Jasmine smells so exotic. Tried to buy pure Jasmine oil. OMG! It’s expensive.
Lunch at Pearl’s Oyster Bar next to a former stranger and retired Philly librarian, named Pearl. Reading Terminal Market magic again!
He’s nothing like the Kenney who put on a Dr. Seuss hat and oversize red bow tie to read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in a kindergarten classroom. Nothing like the Kenney who got City Council to pass a tongue-in-cheek resolution condemning comedian Jon Stewart:
WHEREAS, Jon Stewart should check himself when [he] starts trash talking Philadelphia; last time we checked the Mets haven’t won the World Series in nearly thirty years …
Nothing like the guy who jitterbugged along Broad Street in Mummer drag; nothing like the guy who waxed almost manic — like a cross between Robin Williams and Joe Biden — about religion and musical theater and rap music with me the weekend before, at his campaign headquarters.
If we were dating, I’d assume Kenney’s hard, glum look meant he wasn’t interested but didn’t have the heart to say so. But the game is getting to him, not me. Kenney is passionate about high-school sports and girls’ empowerment. He admires Neumann-Goretti’s cultivation of kids who grow up with less: kids from the inner city, and several girls from Nigeria — girls, Kenney says, “who’d be lost without this team.” True, the team is mired in controversy — rumors of recruiting violations — but Kenney dismisses all that as “white men who want to be dictatorial and run things with an iron fist and who were jealous of the success of these women.”
Every time a foul is called against his Saints, Kenney mutters about the referees. “Ridiculous,” he says, nibbling at one end of his reading glasses. He chalks it up to obvious bias: white, male suburban refs giving an edge to a white, suburban Archbishop Carroll team. At one point, I mention there’s a photographer with his lens trained on us. “I know; he’s wearing on my last nerve.” As the match nears its end, so does Kenney’s composure. “You’re a disgrace!” he shouts at a ref. The Saints win the game; they’ll be going to the finals. But Kenney doesn’t stand up and applaud — he leaves the gym as quickly as he can.
Jim Kenney came up old-school Philly — Irish Catholic, a Mummer, a firefighter’s son. A lot of his friends from the old days left town, moved to suburbs like Havertown and schools like Archbishop Carroll. They moved, but they didn’t really change.
Kenney — he stayed. And as Philadelphia changed, as it evolved, Kenney evolved, too. He got into politics; he became a popular Penn professor, and a tireless fighter for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, and an early advocate for immigrant rights. He’s the sponsor of Philadelphia’s marijuana decriminalization bill, and the kind of guy who’s greeted as a conquering hero by young progressive Democrats at a hipster bar. “Jim would always tell people that he’s lived in two houses his whole life — both within one South Philly zip code,” one City Hall observer told me. “Now he lives in Old City and shops at Kenneth Cole and hangs out at La Colombe.”
Kenney has found a potent political identity in that liminal space between old Philly and new. Nobody on the political stage today better blends the characters of those two great, colliding halves of the city. At his best, Kenney is like a walking hybrid of Two Street and a pop-up beer garden. It’s a combination that makes him a formidable candidate, with the potential to appeal to a broad swath of voters. But there is obvious tension where new and old Philly coexist — and nobody has ever called Jim Kenney relaxed.
KENNEY WAS RAISED on tiny Cantrell Street, where rowhouses are packed almost as tightly across from each other as they are side by side. He went to parochial school, and then, because his parents insisted, St. Joe’s Prep. There he played football, but he wasn’t a star athlete, or a star anything, really. The words next to his yearbook picture read: “‘Jim’ always leaves ’em laughing … crazy Kenney is probably the funniest grad in the Class of ’76.”
But Kenney had a serious side. A big reader, he wanted to go to the University of Scranton, but it wasn’t affordable. So he went to La Salle University instead, and majored in political science. Junior year, he interned for State Senator Vince Fumo, whose district office at 12th and Tasker was in his childhood neighborhood of South Philly.
It was a fateful internship. Fumo had gone to the Prep, too, and he hired the young graduate out of La Salle. And pretty soon, crazy Kenney’s political career took off. He was elected to Council in 1991 — he was just 32 years old — and within four years, the press was asking him when he’d run for mayor. At the time, he joked that he might be too attached to his weekends in Wildwood. “In South Philly,” says one insider, “they thought he was going to be president.”
It’s safe to say Jim Kenney isn’t going to be president. But he may very well be mayor — and he’s running now because the time is finally right. He’d considered it at least twice before, but his kids were still young. And, he says, he lacked the political and emotional maturity. Even his colleagues in City Council seem to think it’s time for a Kenney candidacy. During Kenney’s swan song at Council (he had to give up his seat in order to run for mayor), Republican Councilman Brian O’Neill, the longest-serving member, said, “I might not have said it four years ago, I might not have said it eight years ago. But I’ll say it today: He’s ready.” The precocious kid has finally grown up.
I first met Kenney in 2013, when he was working on an LGBT-equality bill in City Council. People were getting bent out of shape about a clause that would require the city to include gender-neutral bathrooms in new city-owned or -occupied buildings. I felt compelled to write an article explaining that this didn’t mean we’d all be forced to live inside an episode of Ally McBeal. (Family bathrooms with diaper-changing facilities? Those are gender-neutral bathrooms. Calm down, Philadelphia.) I called Kenney to talk about it and expected a standard-issue politician’s reply, but he stopped me mid-question: “Liz, Liz,” he said urgently, as though he was about to tell me a secret code to punch in before the planet exploded. Instead he told me — at length — about meeting transgendered people who’d talked to him about their struggles with bathroom-related discrimination.
Some people have suggested that Kenney panders, and maybe he does at times. But when he gets invested in an issue, he is all in, and I mean in a fervid and deeply personal way. When I got off the phone with him, I turned and said to the person next to me, “That is a guy who really cares about gender-neutral bathrooms.”
Kenney is a politician who best understands policy through anecdote, not stats. His staff was forever dealing with “strays” the Councilman would find on the way to work — stray people, stray animals, stray issues. But unlike most Council members, who fix individual problems all day long and call it constituent service, Kenney always wants to change the system that screwed over his latest stray in the first place. If an armadillo with a broken leg had shown up in Kenney’s office making plaintive squeaks, Council would have passed a bill against armadillo abuse.
But there’s a flip side to being a soft touch. Case in point? The story about Kenney, a South Philly crab vendor, and Kenney’s old childhood friend, Michael Nutter.
Back in 2009, responding to a report of an unpermitted business, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections shut down Phil’s Live Crabs at 10th and Oregon. Word got to Kenney, who was outraged that a neighborhood institution would be shut down over a little paperwork problem. This was Phil’s Live Crabs! Everyone knows those guys!
Kenney asked L&I to back off; the commissioner said no. Kenney called Nutter, his former Council colleague and St. Joe’s Prep classmate, but the Mayor told Kenney he couldn’t help: There are processes and procedures, the Mayor said, that have to be followed. Kenney was livid: People are getting screwed! I don’t want to hear about your procedures! So Kenney got Council to pass a bill that made Phil’s problems go away.
Stacked up against most politicians — so bland, so calculating — Kenney’s personal investment in his causes can be incredibly endearing. But you wonder how his emotional vulnerability will play if he becomes mayor. Ed Rendell was known to be impulsive, but he had the crucial ability to think strategically, to move beyond anecdote and the distraction of the day. Does Kenney have the discipline to do the same?
Then there’s the matter of his temper, which his friends say has been exaggerated. “There’s this strange perception that Jim is this volatile volcano,” says John Hawkins, a City Council lobbyist who, like Kenney, started his career under the wing of Vince Fumo. “I’ve never found that to be the case. He isn’t throwing chairs. When he gets upset, it’s founded in principle. I don’t get that upset about the little guy getting treated badly, because I’m cynical. He still has an idealistic streak.”
But ask Kenney himself, and he acknowledges struggles with his hotheadedness. “One day I got my ass kicked by [Mayor John] Street,” he remembers. “[It used to be] you had to be a resident of the City of Philadelphia for a year before you could apply for a job. I thought it was the stupidest rule; it was trying to keep us all insular. So I passed the bill to change that. But John Street vetoed it, and I lost the veto override. I had taken some positions against him, so he had the knife out.”
After the veto, Kenney had to go to work at his second job, as a $75,000-a-year consultant at the architecture firm Vitetta, then at the Navy Yard. He was still fuming. When he handed the guard his ID, the guard told him it was expired and he’d need to confiscate it. Kenney exploded: “I say, ‘Give me that! I had a bad day, and if I get out of this car, you’re going to be sorry. Give me that fucking thing!’ And I grab the card and I screech away, and I get to my office and I sit down and I go, ‘Oh shit. I got to fix this. This isn’t good.’”
Kenney drove back to the guardhouse to apologize to the guard. “He put his hands up like he’s going to fight,” Kenney says. Kenney apologized not only to the guard he yelled at, but to another guard because he’d had to witness such scabrous behavior. All was resolved, but the incident has stayed with him: He really lost it that time. He says he doesn’t anymore.
At a hearing last year about ending local police holds on undocumented immigrants — another progressive bill he sponsored that passed — several people expressed borderline racist points of view. Kenney’s face was impassive while they spoke. Then he said, “Not too long ago, I’d be angry, and now I just feel compassion. … You can’t go through life hating.”
Well, not all the time, anyway. Last summer, Kenney ran into a reporter outside City Hall. When the reporter asked if he’d seen the latest reports on marijuana arrests — this was before his decriminalization bill had been signed by Nutter, who was still vehemently opposed to the idea — Kenney spat back: “Yeah: 264.”
Then he pointed at the second floor of City Hall, toward the Mayor’s office, and snarled: “’Cause he’s a fucking dickhead, that’s why!” And he stalked off without another word.
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL, so they say. In Philadelphia, the political is personal, too. How to untangle loyalties and grudges when this person was in your class at the Prep and that person’s dad drove you to pickup basketball games when you were 10? If Kenney has transcended his origins, he still has some explaining to do about some of them.
Let’s start with Vince Fumo, who was found guilty in 2009 on 137 corruption counts and sentenced to 55 months in prison. Kenney severed his ties with Fumo years ago, but Fumo’s outsize role in Kenney’s life continues to dog him. During most of his Council career, Kenney was widely perceived as one of the Vince of Darkness’s errand boys; he was frequently called a Fumocrat in the press.
Fumo had been in legal trouble before, back in 1980, when Kenney had just graduated from college and was a young staffer for the Senator. Kenney stuck by his side then, even after Fumo was convicted on charges of padding the state payroll with ghost employees (a conviction later thrown out by a federal judge). Maybe because of that early loyalty (“I had an opportunity to leave,” Kenney says), Kenney enjoyed favored status with Vince, who tolerated a willfulness and an independent streak in his young protégé that other Fumo lieutenants weren’t allowed. For instance, the first time Kenney wanted to run for Council, Fumo was against it. So Kenney went elsewhere to secure campaign funding, then went back to Fumo and said, I’m going to do this with you or without you. Fumo fell into line, and the new kid finished first in a Democratic primary field, besting even the incumbents.
Still, Kenney was unable to shake the perception that Fumo owned him. Hawkins, the lobbyist, is, like Kenney, a former Fumocrat, and he says the perception is wrong: “I was on the front lines with Senator Fumo and Councilman Kenney during very tumultuous times 12 years ago, and I can tell you unequivocally I never saw Senator Fumo tell Councilman Kenney to do anything. He didn’t carry Vince’s water.” Fumo and Kenney did collaborate, Hawkins says, on politics — “who to get elected, who to support, that kind of stuff” — but “in terms of Fumo telling Jim Kenney not to support this bill or that bill? Jim was never Vince’s puppet.”
Kenney says the same: “There was never a time in my entire Council career, even in his heyday, when Vince called me and asked me to vote a certain way. It wasn’t that kind of relationship.” But what kind of relationship was it, then? How did Fumo — a masterful, if corrupt, politician — shape and mold his young apprentice? It’s not clear. Kenney is reluctant to talk about Fumo in anything but a trivial way.
When asked if he’s heartbroken that his old friend went to prison and that they’re no longer in touch, he says, “I was more disappointed with the way he treated people around him, the people who went down with him either because they chose to or because they were misled into thinking something else was going to happen and it didn’t. I’m upset about that. And I’m also upset about what was in the indictment. If you read it, it’s an insane document of craziness. You couldn’t think that one person could actually do all that — and it was true!”
A WOMAN LEANS OVER the pool table to line up a shot, pushing her hips back into the crowd of young white men in glasses wearing stick-on name tags. Many of them are members of the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus, a PAC dedicated to “advancing progressive political leadership in the city of Philadelphia through citizen engagement.” Kenney is there, planning to address the crowd. But it turns out this bar, Johnny Brenda’s, doesn’t allow political speechifying, so folks are going to have to waylay Kenney individually. And make no mistake: He will be waylaid. He’s popular with this crowd.
I ask one of the young progressives if he considers Kenney’s history with Fumo a problem. “I’m 28,” he says. “I’ve lived in Philadelphia for seven years.” He gestures to the people around the room and says a lot of these people haven’t lived here that long, either. For them, it’s Fumo who?
Jon Geeting, an editor for PlanPhilly and one of the event’s organizers, explains to me why young progressives like him seem so taken with Kenney: “He’s been the quality-of-life guy on Council for years now. … He’s been very focused on the user experience of the city.” For a certain segment of young Philadelphia — the largely white millennials of Greater Center City — those quality-of-life concerns are paramount. A lot of City Council members have a hard time hiding their contempt when these sorts of issues — bike lanes, pedestrian safety, pop-ups and the like — come before them. You can hear them thinking: “We’ve got endemic poverty in half the city, no jobs, 40,000 vacant lots, and these brats want to talk about bike lanes again?”
But Kenney has a natural interest in urbanism. Before he moved to Old City five years ago, when he and his wife separated, he was a neighborhood busybody. “I was crazily anal if something was going on outside,” he says. “I’d be getting in the middle of it. Or if somebody was damaging something, I always had to put my two cents in.” (Now he lives on a fifth floor; “You don’t hear every noise,” he says somewhat wistfully.)
Another characteristic that separates Kenney from most on Council? His curiosity. He has an open-mindedness, an interest in the perspectives of other people — and, crucially, in the experience of other places — that’s uncommon in the city’s political class. Young people want bike lanes, he says with a happy shrug, sitting on a wooden stool at Johnny Brenda’s. That means other Philadelphia residents are going to have to find a way to live with them. He seems confident it’ll work itself out. “Teaching at Penn exposed me to so many new ideas,” he says. “That’s how you do things in L.A.? That’s how you do things in Gdańsk, Poland?” If the way they do it somewhere else makes sense, Kenney says, why not consider it for Philly?
Marijuana decriminalization was born out of Kenney’s willingness to listen to Nikki Allen Poe and Chris Goldstein, two young activists/stoners on federal probation. They got some face time with the Councilman and laid out a convincing array of facts on racial disparities around pot arrests, and the police and court costs that get burned up on small weed cases. Kenney was sold. These days, he recommends a look at Reefer Madness, which he says is one of the most destructive movies ever made. He even mentions his own experience with marijuana. It’s not hard to imagine why young voters would feel comfortable with him.
WHEN JIM KENNEY gets excited about a point he’s making, he kicks up his feet in a way that makes him look like he’s about five years old. It’s a winning gesture, and he’s been kicking his feet throughout our conversation at his campaign headquarters, as he talks about feminism, the poetry of Yeats and Langston Hughes, standing on a car during the parade after the Flyers won the Stanley Cup, and the spiritual pangs of the beleaguered Eagles fan.
One topic that does not inspire feet-kicking: Johnny Doc. The powerful union leader was Kenney’s biggest enemy for, oh, most of his adult life. It was the Hatfields and the McCoys, South Philly-style. And it was ridiculous, Kenney says, because they grew up right around the corner from each other and went to the Prep together.
But Fumo and Doc were mortal enemies, so it didn’t matter that Kenney and Doc used to hang out in the schoolyard; as adults, they were alpha dogs staking competing claims to the city.
Kenney claims that’s all in the rearview mirror now. “It was clearly politics,” he says, composed. “I was with one set of folks and he was with another set of folks. Those folks had a falling-out, so we had a falling-out. In retrospect, it was stupid and hurtful. But you grow up, and you realize you can do more together than you can apart.”
“You take the personality quirks and such in me and in him and everybody else, and you look at the overall big picture, and you cannot be successful if you’re feuding and fighting,” Kenney adds. “You need to be on the same page as it relates to job creation and economic development.”
Kenney and Doc didn’t get the boy band back together purely for this mayoral race, as some observers have suggested (though Doc is said to be supporting Kenney’s mayoral effort in several meaningful ways, including, potentially, a well-funded advertising blitz on his behalf). In fact, they had made up — or something like that — well before Kenney chose to run, most notably joining forces against the Post Brothers when the developers were building the Goldtex Apartments in Callowhill. It was the biggest, highest-stakes fight yet between the building trade unions and developers. Mid-confrontation, the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron wrote: “If the Pestronks succeed in finishing their $38 million project, nothing will be the same in the Philadelphia construction business.”
But this battle was about much more than union vs. non-union wage scales at a construction site. It was brash New Philly developers running smack into insular, brutish Old Philly building trades unions. And Jim Kenney — Mr. How-Do-They-Do-It-In-Gdańsk — went to the wall for Johnny Doc and the unions. Kenney used his pull to send L&I inspectors out to the construction site. Later, he would appear with Dougherty in a preposterous propaganda film about the Goldtex mess called Deconstructing Post Brothers.
When the building opened last summer, even Dougherty seemed to understand the unions had gone too far, telling Saffron he wished he’d worked with the Pestronks rather than against them. Kenney says he thinks both sides could have handled it better.
There have been other episodes in the past that call into question Kenney’s credentials as a champion of Philly’s progressive millennials, including a six-month stretch in 2009-’10 when he introduced a bill increasing fines for bike-riding violations and then proposed that the city sue Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to put a stop to all those flash mobs.
But since then, it’s as if he’s been sipping from a political fountain of youth. Jon Geeting says, “Everybody I know, at least, seems to be supporting him at the moment.” Geeting and other young progressives are reluctant to talk about Johnny Doc or, indeed, about the unions in Philly at all. One organization leader tells me the progressive movement is focused now on a transactional approach to change. In other words: Let’s be realistic.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS about Jim Kenney that don’t fall on either side of the Old Philly/New Philly divide:
- He cries easily. And a lot. “I leak” is how he describes it, and it freaks his staff out.
- He believes Tupac Shakur — “a great poet” — was one of the best lyricists to ever live.
- He loves “aromatic” used books, especially those with notes in the margins from prior readers.
- He does an excellent impression of Frank Rizzo (senior and junior).
- He’d like to host a talk show.
- He believes the historic Mary Magdalene has been maligned and decontextualized because she was dangerous to the men in power at the time.
- One of his great regrets in life is that he didn’t join his high-school theater club. “My life could have been totally different,” he says.
He did end up living his life on a stage, though, and it now leaves him accountable to two select audiences. One of those audiences lives — at least metaphorically — in the old neighborhood, and it’s still a part of him. “I do miss the old neighborhood,” he says. “But I food-shop in South Philly. I push the cart in the Acme at 18th and Oregon and see people and get my fill, get my shot of South Philly.” He’s there occasionally for events, sometimes political, sometimes social, like New Year’s on Two Street. Brendan, his son, is in the Jokers, and Nora, his daughter, is a member of Satin Slipper. That audience — that Mummer voter, as he puts it — is still there.
The other audience is composed of these millennials with short memories (hashtag: #fumowho?) and pragmatic ideas, the new residents who want bike-share and pedestrian-friendly projects and equal rights for gays and immigrants and pot smokers. There are a lot of them, but it’s not clear that they go to the polls.
For the moment, both of Kenney’s audiences are watching to see how he handles this mayoral campaign, and he seems, at moments, to feel the scrutiny. That photographer at the basketball game, that reporter sitting next to him there — they’re watching and waiting to see who he’s going to be.
So who is he? Some might say, “You can take the boy out of South Philly, but you can’t take South Philly out of the boy.” But I’m not sure that’s the case. Kenney can’t escape the fact that he’s a 56-year-old white Irish Catholic son of a firefighter — and that people are going to make assumptions based on that identity — but I think he’s trying to move on. I think South Philly is comfort food to Kenney, but he’s most engaged, intellectually, by the new. Still, it’s not easy to walk away from who you were.
Sitting in the home of John Lynch — the president of Kenney’s old Mummers club, who’s known him for almost 40 years now — I feel this tension exquisitely. Lynch’s wife, Mary Jane, brings me coffee from the Keurig, and I warm myself in front of the electric fireplace. It’s so cozy here in this house on this small South Philly street, and it feels even warmer when the Lynches’ granddaughter, who lives two houses away, comes in without knocking for a quick visit. Lynch tells me that the last time he saw Jimmy was on New Year’s Day, when Kenney visited the club and got nostalgic.
“We were talking at the bar. He’s watching all of the families running around and all the guys coming in with their costumes on, taking them off upstairs and coming back down. He says, ‘You know what? I really miss this.’” Sitting there listening to the story, I missed it, too, on his behalf — that iconic Philadelphia evening; the sweaty, rustling taffeta and satin; the smell of beer and the clink of glasses; the kids climbing up onto their dads’ laps, falling asleep against their warm, laughing bellies … I have enough memories of my own as a Philadelphian to understand what Jimmy misses, and what he can’t really go home to anymore.
“Maybe he moved from South Philly so he could give everyone the impression that he’s not only a South Philly guy,” says Lynch, and I don’t know if he understands that it wasn’t just for appearances, that the suits from Kenneth Cole fit better now than the satin-and-feather headdress.
Kenney might be wistful from time to time personally, but I think he’s pretty pleased to be in Old City, hanging out night after night at Race Street Café, talking to the locals between sips of white wine, tearing up behind his reading glasses when they tell him their problems. Then he goes home to his fifth-floor apartment and gleefully watches the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, the new Kenney fully installed in his New Philly life.
Politically, though, the lines remain blurred. Lynch tells me, “I hear rumors that actually Johnny [Doc] was one of the ones that coerced him into running for mayor.” I nod. “I think it’s great,” he says, “because he wields a lot of power, Johnny. He has people at the polls all over the city, two or three guys from the electricians union working the polls. And that’s big.” Lynch is excited now. “If you get somebody like that — and especially all the unions. If they get together and they support Jimmy — and like you said, if we have the progressives, and the unions and the LGBT and the immigrants that are eligible to vote — if we get all of those behind him, and his base, we’ll be unstoppable. I think he has a great chance. Especially with the unions behind him.”
Especially with the unions.
Originally published as “Modern Man?” in the April 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.