Inside Take: When Endorsements Go Horribly Wrong

McCalla: Can Jim Kenney take help from supporters of a controversial council candidate and not get dirty?

He's a talker. | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Jim Kenney. | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. McCalla is a policy consultant who has provided pro bono advice to mayoral candidate Anthony H. Williams, amongst other candidates this election cycle.) 

Well friends, it finally happened — someone has given politics a bad name. This week, the Latinos United for Political Empowerment unceremoniously dumped their endorsed candidate for mayor.

Almost four months ago, in a scene comparable to the birth of Simba in The Lion King, LUPE (a group of 7th Council District pols) lifted Nelson Diaz to the heavens and declared him to be their standard bearer in the Democratic Mayoral Primary. Their excited faces and optimism seemed to reflect pride in supporting the very first Latino to run for the mayor’s office.

Fast Forward to the present and we see LUPE again gathered together “with excited faces and optimism” to ditch Simba and anoint a new, non-Latino champion former Councilperson Jim Kenney, for mayor. 

Politics is about addition, not subtraction, so Kenney was smart, right and proper to accept LUPE’s backing, but (and, this is important) these are the very same ward leaders who actively support a fellow named Manny Morales for District Councilperson and very strenuously oppose the reelection of incumbent Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

More interestingly, Manny Morales is the owner of a Facebook page that contains racist, sexist and homophobic posts. While Morales claimed he was hacked, that wasn’t enough to dissuade Democratic Party Chair Bob Brady from repudiating and rescinding the endorsement extended by the Democratic Ward Leaders in the 7th District, who just happen to also comprise the membership of LUPE.

Former Judge Nelson Diaz was prominent amongst those, like John F. Street, Mayor Nutter and Sen. Anthony Williams, who denounced Morales in mid-March and called upon him to leave the race for council. Morales’ only visible support seems to be the ward leaders of LUPE — and whatever boost he might get from any deals LUPE can cut on his behalf.

Political deals are impossible without the satisfaction of mutual interests. If Nelson Diaz is to be believed, LUPE’s ”interest” was a $100,000 gift to Morales and the promise of a joint campaign to help him defeat Sanchez. Diaz says he refused to comply and LUPE withdrew their endorsement in favor of a candidate who would.

The Kenney campaign says their candidate isn’t supporting Morales, and isn’t giving him any money. But the money doesn’t need to come from Kenney to help Moralaes. One of the independent super PACs assisting Kenney’s campaign could fund Morales, and nobody would know until the election is all but over, if then. These PACs exist, after all, to satisfy campaign needs without directly involving the candidate.

Then again, we may never know for certain that there even was an “ask” of camp Kenney at all. Diaz is widely respected but, as my grandmother would say, “his mouth ain’t a prayer book” and we only have his word.

The Kenney dilemma is how to convincingly distance himself from the seemingly bigoted Morales, remembering that the progressive wing of his base loves incumbent Sanchez, and still not offend LUPE. If he doesn’t move deftly and quickly to assuage anxieties, the pro Sanchez forces will have little choice but to tightly tie Kenney to Morales and attack them both. In fact, the news coverage continues with both Sanchez and Diaz pummeling Kenney and LUPE.

Nobody believes Kenney shares any of Morales’s repugnant views, but he can still be tainted by an association with him. His choices here are bad. If he endorses Sanchez, he loses the 10 or 11 ward leaders represented by LUPE which is roughly 15 percent of the total ward structure. If he endorses Morales, he will be attacked in the media, by other Democrats and abandoned by some of his progressive voters. It may be that the best Kenney can do is devoutly stand on the yellow line in the middle of the road and hope folks believe he’s neutral. Of course, he cannot allay the fear that his backers might coordinate with Morales & LUPE without his knowledge.

The core of this truly messy distraction is LUPE which, for reasons known only to a few, simply cannot live in a world where Sanchez is their district councilperson. They’ve opposed her in two previous elections and must be pulling their hair out now that she’s seeking her third term.

Unlike his recent surprise endorsement by some West Oak Lane pols, the LUPE support will be more far more perilous than pleasurable and will hang in the political air as another warning post about the difficult politics in the seventh council district. Given that voters in the seventh have a history of low turnout, Kenney may soon conclude this was one endorsement he could have done without.

Jay McCalla has served as a city deputy managing director, a director for the Redevelopment Authority and as chief of staff to Councilman Rick Mariano.