The Stark Choice Between Kenyatta Johnson and Ori Feibush

Thursday's debate was cordial, but it underscored huge differences between the candidates and their sense of what's needed to move the Second District forward.

MO-metro-ori-kenyatta-illo-940x540

There was more energy in the room at the start of Thursday night’s debate between Second Council District contenders Kenyatta Johnson and Ori Feibush than at any mayoral forum so far this election year. Maybe more people too. I’d guess at least 400 turned out.

The standing-room only crowd was a reflection of the intense interest—and intense emotions—this race is generating in a diverse and rapidly changing district that includes key chunks of Center City and South and Southwest Philadelphia. You know the characters by now: Johnson, a freshman councilman and former State Representative, a young scion of the party who enjoys the full-throated backing of a wide array of elected officials; and Feibush, the even younger rebel developer who’s clashed repeatedly with city agencies and officials, but has also redeveloped large chunks of Point Breeze. It’s a classic contest pitting the establishment against a potent (and largely self-funded) upstart, replete with complicated sub-narratives about race, gentrification and the clash between old and new Philadelphia.

So yeah, this was a highly anticipated debate, and all the more so for being moderated by Citified’s Holly Otterbein (plug over).

But while there were a few fireworks and a handful of tense exchanges, the candidates were largely cordial and the candidates passed up multiple opportunities to attack each other (you can read our blow-by-blow, live account of the debate here).

Johnson was animated throughout, presenting himself as a constituent service-focused councilman who has tried to balance rapid redevelopment in sections of the district with the needs and concerns of long-time residents. He latched on to the Pew poll released this week showing that Philadelphians are optimistic about the city and its future, and sought to tie the district’s growth to City Council’s work. “Some people will say the city is broken, but if you look at the poll that came out today, the City of Philadelphia is on the right track we’re moving forward, we have a positive attitude and we’re going to keep this city moving forward,” Johnson said in his closing remarks.

Feibush was more subdued, but also probably a bit more substantive. In sharp contrast with Johnson, he portrayed City Hall as a dysfunctional force that’s holding Philadelphia and the Second District back. “Over the years I realized that the reason that Philadelphia, and specifically the Second District, has in fact become a tale of two cities is specifically because of the politics and policies on the ground,” Feibush said. He doubled down on that sentiment in his closing statement: “We’re no longer telling our youth or our children, ‘you guys don’t know how good you have it.’ We’re saying ‘you guys don’t know how good it used to be. You guys don’t know that you used to be able to walk to school and feel safe. You don’t know that you used to be able go into the classroom and get a quality education and not worry about getting beat up.'”

Talk about different notions of how the city is faring, and what degree of action is needed to make it better. Feibush is all about urgency. Johnson strongly resists the notion that radical change is needed. Voters in the Second District have a pretty stark choice, one that goes way beyond the huge stylistic differences between the candidates.

Here are a few other highlights from the debate:

  • Both candidates handled well a question on racial tensions in the Second District. It’s a fraught issue in the district, to say the least. Feibush said he’d have to be “blind” not to be aware of racial tension. But he touted his diverse corps of supporters and said: “I’m looking to elevate the conversation in the Second District and not to play identity politics.” Johnson, who has explicitly raised the question of race in the election in other settings, used the question to tout his work “balancing the relations and communication between new residents and old residents.”
  • On the question of expanding operations at the South Philly refinery, Johnson said he’d support it, while Feibush said he could not so long as the oil trains that feed the refinery continued to pose a risk to Second District residents.
  • Otterbein asked the candidates what the best quality was of their opponents. Johnson answered graciously (saying he admired that Feibush was a businessman who wanted to improve the district). Feibush did not (he made a crack about how he’s short and Johnson is tall).

Remember, for a comprehensive blow-by-blow, check out our Twitter account of the debate here.