Jim Kenney’s Big Move to Win Black Support

Critical endorsements from black leaders give Kenney big boost, and are major setbacks for Williams and Abraham.

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

On Monday, former City Councilman Jim Kenney landed what could turn out to be the most critical endorsement in the Philadelphia mayor’s race: Council members Marian Tasco and Cindy Bass, as well as state Reps. Dwight Evans, Cherelle Parker and Stephen Kinsey, announced they are backing him. So are a number of ward leaders from Northwest Philadelphia.

The endorsement of a white candidate by several prominent black politicians matters, and you should pay attention to it.

Here’s why:

  • To win the mayor’s race, Kenney needs a decent chunk of the black vote — say 15 percent or 20 percent. This could help him get there in a serious way. Evans and Tasco are royalty in the political class of Northwest Philadelphia, which is an area of the city that, unlike many others, actually votes in midterm elections. Tasco is also the Democratic leader of the 50th Ward, which is one of the most engaged wards in the city. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, only 37 percent of registered voters went to the polls. But in Tasco’s 50th Ward? Fifty-six percent cast a ballot. Why are black votes considered so critical for Kenney? Because Philadelphia voters tend to vote along racial lines, and with two high-profile white candidates in the race (Kenney and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham) and just one big-name black candidate (state Sen. Anthony Williams), the racial math is working against Kenney. To win office, he’ll need to win black support.
  • These endorsements also underscore what looks to be a fundamental shift in dynamics of the mayor’s race. Before mayoral campaigns and their supporters began airing TV ads, Abraham was the frontrunner according to her own polling (which wasn’t seriously disputed by the Kenney or Williams camps). Not only that, but her poll showed she was even leading among black voters: 24 percent of African-American residents surveyed said they would vote for her, while 22 percent said they would vote for Williams and 7 percent said they would vote for Kenney. But that was before the TV ads. Now, after a few weeks with Williams’ and Kenney’s mugs all over the tube, a new poll conducted for Kenney’s supporters revealed that he and Williams are tied for first among surveyed residents. This is quickly becoming a race between Kenney and Williams. Monday’s endorsement is a blow to Williams, yes, but it’s also a blow to Abraham, in that it suggests Kenney is the white candidate more likely to win significant black support.
  • One of the chief criticisms of Mayor Michael Nutter has been that he has a toxic relationship with City Council. The theory goes that this conflict is partly why Nutter has been unable to push through a few major initiatives, such as his proposal to sell Philadelphia Gas Works. And perhaps we should have seen the writing on the wall: In the 2007 mayoral race, Nutter was not endorsed by a single Council member. Conversely, Kenney has now been endorsed by two of his former colleagues on Council, and one candidate for Council (Parker). Since Nutter took office, many a political insider has reminisced about the bygone days of former Mayor Ed Rendell and then-City Council President John Street working hand-in-hand. With these endorsements under his belt, would a Mayor Kenney have a better shot at forging a productive relationship with Council than Nutter did? Perhaps. It’s worth noting that Williams also has Council supporters — more than Kenney, at least so far. Curtis Jones, Jr., Kenyatta Johnson, Jannie Blackwell and Maria Quiñones-Sanchez are all backing Williams.

Now that we’ve told how much of a difference these endorsements could make for Kenney, we’re going to dismantle our argument and tell you why they could all be for naught. You know who Evans supported in the 2007 mayoral election? Himself, a/k/a the guy who finished fifth in the Democratic primary with less than 8 percent of the vote. These endorsements have to be leveraged properly by Kenney in order to pay off. That means putting Tasco and Evans in pro-Kenney TV ads, as well as working within the Northwest ward structure to build up the Kenney campaign’s ground game.

We’ll find out in the next few weeks whether Team Kenney can pull that off.