Bill Green: Jim Kenney Would “Take Us Back to an Era of Cronyism”

The SRC member and former councilman goes after his old enemy Kenney.

Not good friends. | Kenney photo, Matt O'Rourke AP

Not friends. | Kenney photo, Matt Rourke AP

Bill Green has a story about Jim Kenney he thinks you should hear.

Back in 2007, when Green was gearing up for his first run as a City Council candidate, he asked Kenney for a meeting, and they ended up eating breakfast at the Four Seasons sometime in the winter before the May election. That much, Green and Kenney agree on.

As Green tells it, he was feeling Kenney out to see if there was a chance they could work together, even though both were seeking one of five at-large City Council seats. Kenney was not enthusiastic about the idea, Green says now. “Kenney said, ‘you know, I don’t think you’d like it. I really can’t stand the people I work with,'” Green says, describing the breakfast conversation of eight years ago.

Green says Kenney told him he was staying in Council because he needed the paycheck, and that Kenney advised Green not to run, because he’d be quitting in four years anyway. Green should run then “so there’s not two Irish guys on the ballot,” Kenney said at the time, according to Green. The conversation was not going well, and it was clear to Green that he and Kenney would be political rivals, and not friends. He says he asked Kenney one final question as breakfast ended: “Why the hell would you support Bob Brady?” Brady, you’ll recall was running for mayor, and Kenney was supporting his bid.

As Green tells it, Kenney quickly replied: “To protect the way of life.” Green says he asked Kenney what he meant by that, and Kenney said: “It’s the people I came up with, who have jobs in the city or the courts or the Register of Wills. Bob Brady represents and will protect that way of life and that’s why I support him.”

It’s a damaging anecdote, inasmuch as it corroborates suspicions in some quarters that Kenney—though now a favorite of many city progressives—is at core an old school pol more concerned about patronage and doing favors than in moving the city forward. But is it true?

Kenney’s campaign declined to make him available to talk about Green’s recollection, but campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt dismissed Green’s account as false, and said: “The warm farewell Jim received from all of his colleagues on Council speak highly of their relationship and the work he did there, not to mention that Bob Brady is supporting Anthony Williams’ mayoral campaign and not ours. There is no evidence to suggest that anything Mr. Green is saying is true.”

There was no third party at that breakfast, so it’s impossible to independently corroborate Green’s recollection of events.

Green acknowledges that since the breakfast was more than eight years ago, his recollection of Kenney’s comments should not be taken as verbatim. They’re better thought of as paraphrases. Still, Green says, “It’s a fair representation of what [Kenney] said.”

And why is Green telling this story so long after the meeting occurred? Green says he wasn’t a fan of Philly mag’s feature-length profile of Kenney, written by the talented Liz Spikol and published this Sunday. “It seems like the Philly mag piece whitewashed who Jim Kenney really is,” Green says.

When I ask Green who Kenney “really is,” he replies that Kenney is “Part of the past. Part of a system that would take us back to an era of cronyism, white collar patronage and favoritism that we haven’t had to experience for the last eight years.” As an example, Green cites one of the anecdotes in Spikol’s profile, where Kenney intervened with the Department of Licenses and Inspections on behalf of a South Philly merchant—Phil’s Live Crabs—who was running an unpermitted business. “I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if [Kenney] were in charge and telling L&I not to enforce the law for a buddy of his,” Green says.

It’s relatively rare to see a high profile public official like Green, a member of the School Reform Commission (though no longer the chair), go after a candidate so aggressively and openly. Still, there’s some very important context to consider when weighing Green’s remarks:

  • Green and Kenney have long been enemies, dating back, it seems, to that first meeting at the Four Seasons. Green describes his relationship with Kenney as “extremely poor.”
  • Green is vocally supporting Tony Williams, one of Kenney’s mayoral rivals. “I’m with Tony,” Green says when asked about the campaign. Green’s PAC, Green for Philadelphia, donated $2,900 to Williams last year. When I ask if he’s attacking Kenney now to give Williams a leg up, Green replies: “One of the reasons I’m supporting Tony is because I know Jim Kenney and I know how bad he’ll be for the city, and I feel like your readers should know.”
  • Green himself has left open the possibility that he’d run against Kenney in the fall election, if Kenney were to win the mayoral primary. Green, a lifelong Democrat, recently changed his registration to independent, a move that gives him the option to run as independent for mayor or City Council.

One final note. Even if this exchange went down precisely as Green recalls, it did take place eight years ago. Many observers think that Kenney has changed considerably since then. I ask Green if he felt Kenney had evolved since that breakfast meeting in 2007. “I think he’s smoother than he was,” Green says. “But I don’t think the zebra has changed its stripes.”