Hard Jabs — But No Knockouts — at Philadelphia Mayoral Debate

Solid performances from a lot of the candidates, no big change in the contest's dynamic.

Mayoral Candidates Six Grid

This was a status quo debate. Nobody got pummeled, nobody emerged as triumphantly victorious. As a group, the contenders seemed a bit on edge, aware of how little time is remaining in this race to make their case, but not entirely sure how to do so. A few punches were thrown, mostly at Jim Kenney, but I’m not sure any landed. Nelson Diaz said he would like some marijuana. Milton Street was (relatively) subdued. Doug Oliver turned in another strong performance. Lynne Abraham, whose physical collapse on the last debate stage dominated headlines for days, was fine, but not strong enough to fundamentally change the dynamics of the race, which are now working against her. Anthony Williams, who was arguably the winner of the first debate, was more pugnacious but less commanding this time around.

Kenney overall fared pretty well, certainly better than he did in the first Philadelphia mayoral debate (which was a really weird night, given Abraham’s collapse). Of the top tier candidates — who appear to be locked in a three-way tie — Kenney probably performed best. He fended off the attacks with relative ease and responded to a lot of the questions with substantive answers. But he whiffed on a few too. It was hardly a trouncing.

So it was a status quo debate, but with a hard edge that foreshadows the seemingly inevitable negativity to come.

Diaz got the debate started with a somewhat clumsy frontal assault on Kenney, turning a question about civilian review of the police department into a rehash of some undeniably objectionable remarks Kenney made back in the 1990s. “Which Kenney do you have?” Diaz asked. “The one 20 years ago or the one today? Why is it convenient today to say the right thing? Because he’s running for mayor. What was he saying 20 years ago? Which Kenney are you electing? You’re electing one that has absolutely no regard for human beings.”

As Kenney’s campaign continues to gain momentum, Diaz and Williams are pressing this line of attack more and more: progressive Kenney, they argue, is a new invention, and one that shouldn’t be trusted. The Williams campaign recently launched a website, ProgressivePhilly.com, that opens with a question: “Who Is the Real Progressive?” It goes on to critique the records of Kenney and Abraham alike, highlighting controversies and ill-advised quotes from their long careers (prediction: the site foreshadows attack ads that will be launched by Williams’ super PAC allies).

There’s a new found sense of urgency in the Williams camp. The site is a reflection of that. So is the candidate’s umbrage at Kenney’s growing tally of endorsements from progressive groups. Williams also sought to raise the stakes of the campaign in his closing remarks, when he said that bold and dramatic changes were necessary — though he didn’t specify what those were, and his platform to date might have an interesting idea or two, but it’s not exactly a portrait of bold and dramatic change.
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Abraham’s Best Moment. It was challenging to pick Abraham’s best moment, but she didn’t have a lot of bad ones either. Hers was a steady performance. Of the big three candidates, Abraham is the one who most consistently critiques city government using a very broad brush. “We are a wasteful government, we are a disjointed government and sometimes we are a dysfunctional government,” she said, at one point. At another, she said an overabundance of city regulation and cumbersome bureaucracy stood in the way of job growth. Oh, and she alone was brave enough to call the Sixers “pathetic” in a lightning-round sequence that featured a handful of (obviously) very light questions.

Milton Street’s Best Moment. A no-holds barred attack on Williams and his management of the Hardy Williams Charter School, named after Williams’ deceased father, that started with Street reading a dictionary definition of the word “fool,” moved on to a recitation of the school’s woes (it was eventually taken over by highly regarded charter operator Mastery) and ended with the question: “How’s he going to fix the pension fund if he can’t manage an 800 student charter school?” Also, this, recorded by Newsworks’ Brian Hickey:

Anthony Williams’ Best Moment. Williams’ response to Street was effective and again revealed that he’s at his best when he’s speaking off the cuff and with conviction about his views on city schools and educating city kids. “We partnered with mastery not because [the school] was failing, but because we were not satisfied with average. Average and the status quo is what’s bringing the public school system down. We need to face the fact that you can argue with a personality all day, but it doesn’t fix the thousands of children who are confronted with inadequate public education across the board.”

Doug Oliver’s Best Moment: Asked, for the 1,337th time this mayoral campaign what he would do to lure jobs to the city, Oliver talked for a while about tax reform, redeveloping land, increasing access to capital for small businesses. Then he said: “And we can brag. Everything’s not wrong with this city. We’ve got a great city, with access to planes, trains, automobiles and boats. You can do a lot right here and the mayor’s job is to be a cheerleader to go out there and get those businesses to come.” It was a welcome note of optimism in a mayoral campaign where talk of the city’s very-real challenges — poverty, anemic job creation, poor schools and so on — has overshadowed the actually fairly buoyant public mood about Philadelphia’s trajectory.

Jim Kenney’s Best Moment: Kenney was strong on a number of answers, wonky and inaccessible on others. An audience member asked a good question: as mayor, how would you make unpopular decisions? Kenney cited his work on LGBT rights in the 1990s and immigrant rights more recently as positions that weren’t exactly popular, particularly with his rowhome base. The answers were specific an on point, and more importantly, they served as a rebuttal to the charge from Williams and Diaz that Kenney is no more than an opportunistic convert to progressive politics. Kenney was also gracious enough to say that he would vote for Doug Oliver, when asked by the moderator who he’d vote for if he couldn’t vote for himself. The other candidates took the easy way out — offered as an option by the moderator — saying they’d vote for Mike Jerrick, the Fox 29 Morning Show co-host who “ran for mayor” on April 1st.

Nelson Diaz’s Best Moment: Diaz’s signature moment in this debate was his attack on Kenney right out of the gate. He had a couple of other decent lines. Talking about job creation and the tax structure, he said, “all you have to do is drive up City Line avenue; on one side you’ve got Saks and all the other great shops,” and on the other side, Philadelphia. He chalked the difference up to the city’s tax structure. Diaz seems a little frustrated, both in today’s debate and other settings. His campaign clearly feels Kenney doesn’t deserve the progressive affection he’s been getting, not when their guy has been slogging away working for civil rights for decades. Diaz might be able to take some air out of Kenney’s progressive balloon, but there’s no evidence so far that it’s helping his campaign any.