The No-Bullshit Mayoral Election Guide

It's time to cut to the chase. Here’s the best and worst of each candidate, deep links for the undecided, and all the answers you need before the polls open on Tuesday.


Photos by Jeff Fusco.

The election is on Tuesday, May 19. That’s really soon! And maybe you haven’t followed the mayoral race all that closely. That’s OK. You’re busy. We get it. That’s why we’ve put together this bottom-line assessment of the candidates’ greatest strengths, and their biggest weaknesses. It’s a different sort of voter guide. No hemming or hawing. Just our brutally honest read on what each candidate brings to the game, and what they leave on the sidelines.

Jim Kenney

The Basics: 57. He was an at-large City Councilman for 23 years. Resigned to run for mayor.

The Case For Kenney…

  • He’s the most progressive candidate who can win. Kenney was the driving force behind the decriminalization of marijuana. He pushed through one of the nation’s most expansive local LGBT rights ordinances. In recent years he’s had a solid record on urbanism, introducing bills that create protections for pedestrians on construction sites and backing food-truck liberalization.
  • He attracts top talent and has run a strong campaign. Kenney has a record of attracting capable staffers and  his campaign has clearly been the best managed in the contest, in spite of its very late start. That suggests Kenney knows how to take advice from experts and keep a group of people rowing in the same direction — both are vital skills for any mayor.
  • He’s the candidate of traditional education. For some voters, that’s a big plus. Kenney is endorsed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, despite supporting vouchers early in his career.
  • He’s got good relationships with Council members. Unlike Michael Nutter, who was resented by a good number of his Council colleagues], Kenney is generally well-liked on Council. He’s also received a kind of quasi-endorsement from City Council President Darrell Clarke. Those good relations could help a Mayor Kenney advance his agenda.
  • He’s assembled a diverse coalition. Effective mayors (think Ed Rendell or Nutter) reach across race and color lines as they govern. Those that don’t or can’t tend to be divisive (think Frank Rizzo or John Street). Kenney has put together a coalition built on labor support, white progressives, working class ethnic whites and middle-class black professionals. That suggests he has the empathy to represent and listen to a big swathe of the city.
  • He’s got personality. Plenty of it. And that’s probably an asset in a city that likes its elected officials to show their humanity from time to time.
  • He’s a blend of old and new Philadelphia. Kenney combines the grit and character of old Philadelphia with the worldliness and open-mindedness of new Philadelphia. At his best, he’s a “walking hybrid of Two Street and a pop-up beer garden.”

The Case Against…

  • He’s a lifelong politician schooled by the corrupt Vince Fumo. If you want fundamental change in the city’s political culture, Kenney is probably the wrong candidate for you. He’s a product of the system. He was trained in politics by Fumo, the former all-powerful State Senator who was sentenced to 55 months in federal prison after being convicted on 137 charges of corruption. Kenney cut ties with Fumo after the trial, but his allegiance to Philadelphia’s broader political culture seems intact.
  • He’ll owe city unions, and labor boss John Dougherty, big. Kenney is the candidate of big labor. He’s supported by the city’s employee unions (the same unions he’ll have to negotiate contracts with if elected mayor), the PFT, and Dougherty’s electrician’s union Local 98. Combined, unions have raised $2.3 million to fund the two Super PACs supporting Kenney’s candidacy. Will unions own Kenney? Can he tell them no? We don’t really know. His record on resisting union pressure is mixed.
  • He’s done a lot of “evolving.” Earlier in his career, Jim Kenney was a moderate to conservative Democrat who favored experimenting with school vouchers, voted against a ban on assault weapons, opposed a commission to investigate police corruption and favored aggressive policing tactics. Kenney’s positions on those and other issues have changed. Skeptics question just how authentic his evolution has been.
  • He has limited management experience. Apart from running an effective campaign, Kenney has never managed a large operation, and he’s never had a full-time job outside of politics. He does work as a consultant for Vitetta, an architecture firm.
  • There are questions about his temperament. Kenney blows his stack from time to time (he told a reporter last year that Mayor Nutter was “a fucking dickhead”). Can he keep his temper in check in an incredibly difficult job?

Go Deeper:

Anthony Williams

The Basics: 58. State Senator. He’s served 27 years in the state capital.

The Case For Williams: 

  • He’d shake up the School District of Philadelphia in a big way. Williams is a strong proponent of school choice (read: charter expansion and vouchers). He seems to have made a strategic decision to underemphasize those beliefs, but they are real and enduring, and born of his conviction that he’s got a moral obligation to give parents and students access to the best schools possible, be they charter, public or private. Voters who think the school district would be best served by radical change should take a long look at Williams.
  • He knows Harrisburg. Philadelphia frequently must go hat-in-hand to Harrisburg, seeking more money for city schools and a zillion other things. It’s rarely an easy sell. As a veteran State Senator, Williams knows the landscape in Harrisburg well.
  • He might be able to deliver more school funding from the state. Between his experience in Harrisburg and his views on education — which are more in line with those of the GOP leadership than with Governor Wolf — he may be able to cut a deal with Republican leaders to get Philadelphia schools more state cash, than, say, a Mayor Kenney.
  • He has a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. With the big and important exception of schools, Williams is not a particularly ideological candidate. On non-education matters he is by-and-large a liberal, but he’s shown a willingness throughout his career to work with Republicans and to cut deals where he can. Some Democratic primary voters will consider that a con, but mayors need to be able to compromise.
  • He’d rein in the police. While all the candidates have spoken often of the need to improve police/community relations, Williams has gone furthest, particularly in recent days. He’s the only candidate to say he’d get rid of Police Commissioner Chuck Ramsey (because Ramsey supports stop-and-frisk), and he showed up at the #PhillyIsBaltimore rally. Some commentators consider his recent, intense interest in this subject to be electoral opportunism.
  • His campaign theme is a good match for the times. He’s not always explained it all that well, but the theme at the core of the Williams campaign — One Philadelphia — is a fitting for a city that’s evolving at dramatically different paces. His pitch is that neglected neighborhoods need to become full partners in the city’s progress.

The Case Against…

  • Three wealthy investors from the suburbs have spent nearly $7 million on Williams’ behalf. That is a staggering and deeply troubling amount of money, made possible by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The donors — who made their immense fortunes at Susquehanna International Group — share Williams’ views on education reform. The concerns over their spending on this race are twofold. 1) The spending is so extreme, and sourced to so few people, that it perverts the democratic process and 2) That it will give three guys extreme leverage with Williams if he wins the election.
  • Williams has run a listless, uninspired campaign. Williams began the race with huge advantages in money, endorsements and party support. Most important, he had a big advantage in racial math — that is, he was the one high-profile black candidate in a city where people tend to vote along racial lines. Despite those huge advantages, he is now running far behind Kenney, and his campaign has lacked focus and been poorly organized.
  • He’d fire Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Earlier in the campaign, Williams wanted to keep Ramsey. More recently, he’s said that Ramsey’s support of stop-and-frisk policies means he has to go. Williams seems to be calculating that national outrage over police abuses will lead Philadelphia voters to support the mayoral candidate willing to oust the local police commissioner. But Ramsey is actually wildly popular in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter called Williams “stupid” for suggesting Ramsey should go, and a bevy of city elites have bailed on Williams in the wake of his change-of-heart on Ramsey.

Go Deeper:

Lynne Abraham

The Basics: 74. Attorney. She served four terms as District Attorney, was a judge, and ran the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

The Case For Abraham:

  • She’s experienced. Abraham served as District Attorney for 19 years. Before that, she was a Common Pleas Court judge and, for a time, chief of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
  • She’s independent. Abraham has bucked the city’s Democratic party for most of her career. Unlike rivals Anthony Williams and Jim Kenney, Abraham’s campaign isn’t supported by deep-pocketed Super PACs with agendas all their own. Her slogan is “nobody’s mayor but yours.” Translation: she’s not in the pocket of big labor or rich suburban dudes.
  • She projects confidence and authority. Abraham is a force of nature.
  • She’s a woman. Philadelphia has never elected a woman as mayor. Before Abraham, there’s really only been one other credible woman mayoral candidate. That’s pretty embarrassing. Maybe it’s time for a change.

The Case Against:

  • She’s 74 years old. If elected, Abraham would become the oldest big city mayor in modern U.S. history. For some voters, this isn’t a problem at all. For others, it’s a big problem, particularly after she fell to the floor at the first televised debate.
  • She’s out of step with the times. Abraham has changed her positions on some hot-button social issues such as pot decriminalization and the death penalty over the course of this campaign, but it’s often felt as though she’s running to be mayor of a Philadelphia that’s a decade (or more) in the rear view mirror.
  • She wasn’t a particularly effective District Attorney. Philadelphia had the lowest felony conviction rate of big urban counties when Abraham was DA. Abraham also made some controversial, racially divisive decisions as DA.
  • She’s already alienated City Council. While Abraham’s independence is bracing, she’s already publicly shown up City Council and Council President Darrell Clarke. Some will consider that a feature, not a bug. But remember how Mayor Nutter’s poor working relationship with Council has frustrated much of his agenda.

Go Deeper:

Nelson Diaz

The Basics: 68. Lawyer. Former judge, former City Solicitor, former general counsel at the U.S. Department of Housing and urban Development.

The Case For Diaz…

  • He’s probably got the best resume in the field. Diaz has had a distinguished, trailblazing career as one of Philadelphia’s leading Puerto Rican activists and an accomplished lawyer with experience at the city and federal levels. Diaz helped reform city courts and federal housing policy.
  • He’s the most progressive candidate in the race. Diaz has been on the front lines of the city’s civil rights movement for an awfully long time, and he’s staked out the most liberal position of all the candidates on the schools debate.

The Case Against…

  • Diaz is an ineffective candidate. Despite all that experience, despite that strong record, Diaz has proven unable to connect with voters. That raises serious questions about how effective he’d be as mayor, since selling an agenda is central to success.
  • He can’t win. Just five percent of 600 respondents polled this week favored Nelson Diaz.

Go Deeper:

Doug Oliver

The Basics: 40. Former spokesman for Mayor Nutter and senior executive at Philadelphia Gas Works..

The Case For Oliver…

  • He is the most gifted communicator in the field. Oliver is charismatic, convincing and the flat out best public speaker and debater in the contest. Communication is a big part of leadership, and Oliver is an unusually effective communicator.
  • He’s run a tireless campaign that is punching way above its weight. Oliver has raised less than $40,000, but with a volunteer staff and an impressive work ethic, Oliver’s campaign feels a lot bigger than that.
  • He knows the mayor’s office from the inside out. Oliver is the only candidate who can credibly claim that he knows what life is really like inside Room 215 in City Hall. Mayor Nutter told the Inquirer: “Doug was at every table, and was in the critical meetings, as we tried to, as a team, make decisions about how to save the city from going into a financial collapse.”
  • Ed Rendell thinks Oliver is pretty great. And he keeps saying so.
  • A vote for Oliver is a vote for optimistic change. A first-time candidate, Oliver has no institutional backing at all. By definition, a vote for him is a vote against the status quo.

The Case Against…

  • He can’t win. A recent poll found just three percent of voters would cast their ballots for Oliver.
  • He’s politically inexperienced. Oliver has big time natural talent, but it’s a big leap to become the mayor of the nation’s fifth largest city without having held elected office or a CEO position at a big company or institution.
  • Oliver has a weird relationship with policy. In the early days of the campaign, Oliver was proudly vague about his policy preferences, saying he’d take cues from smart people who know the subject matter best. As the weeks have gone on, some policy positions have grown more firm, but a lot of his ideas remain half-baked at best.

Want to know more? Check out:

Milton Street

The Basics: 75. Former state senator. Brother of former mayor John Street. Former inmate at a federal prison in Kentucky.

The Case For Street…

  • He’s laser focused on street violence. In a campaign that’s featured a lot more talk about police/community relations than criminal violence, Street steers every question back to crime.
  • He’s speaking for marginalized communities. Don’t forget, Street won 24 percent of the vote citywide when he challenged Mayor Nutter for the Democratic nomination in 2011. Sure, most of those votes were more anti-Nutter votes than they were pro-Street votes. But that’s kind of the point with Street. He represents the ultimate protest vote.

The Case Against…