Jim Kenney Wins in Historic Landslide

The former councilman ran big in neighborhoods across the city. The caveat? Low turnout.

Jim Kenney accepts the Democratic nomination for mayor. | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Jim Kenney accepts the Democratic nomination for mayor. | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Updated 5/20/2015 with nearly final election results.

Jim Kenney won the Democratic mayoral primary in dominating fashion Tuesday night, capturing neighborhoods across the city in a showing that proved his appeal to low- and high-income voters, to blacks and whites, to Philadelphians new and old.

Kenney defeated chief rival Anthony Williams by a staggering margin of 30 percentage points. Lynne Abraham collected less than 10 percent of the vote. Doug Oliver and Nelson Diaz were around four percent, and Milton Street stood at less than two percent.

This was a shellacking. Kenney’s percentage point margin of victory is the largest of any competitive Democratic mayoral primary since at least 1979.

“Our campaign was a broad and unprecedented coalition of diverse groups, many of whom came together for the first time to support me,” Kenney said in his brisk victory speech, with prominent labor and political supporters at his back. “We must work together with the understanding that every neighborhood matters.”

The victory comes with a significant asterisk: low voter turnout. Only 27 percent of all registered voters cast ballots. Democratic turnout was hardly any better, at just 29 percent.

Still, Kenney’s victory was overwhelming. And while polls had predicted his win for weeks now, Kenney’s victory is nonetheless a remarkable development given his position when the race began. As recently as January, Kenney was a mayoral afterthought. He wasn’t in the race, or even considering it all that seriously. He couldn’t win. Everybody thought so — Kenney included. And when he did take the plunge and announce his candidacy, Ed Rendell dismissed him as “the flavor of the week.” Sure, Kenney had personality, but the fundamentals were all working against him.

What happened?

A series of wildly improbable happenings, beginning with the abrupt exit of Ken Trujillo from the mayoral race and ending with Anthony Williams hitting the self-destruct button on his own campaign (repeatedly). In between, three rich guys from the suburbs squandered $7 million, the prevailing theory that racial math predetermines elections in Philadelphia was debunked, and Lynne Abraham collapsed in a live, televised debate.

None of those extraordinary developments — all of which worked to Kenney’s advantage — diminish his accomplishment. He ran a disciplined, professional campaign, showed real political talent in winning over key African American leaders, charmed a diverse array of voters and proved he was the right candidate for this moment. Indeed, Kenney in many ways feels like a good match for Philadelphia right now — a city that is, like Kenney himself, a rapidly evolving mix of old and new influences.

“He actually knows and cares and brags about what Philadelphia was like in 1975 and 1985, but he’s got an eye to 2025,” said State Rep. Brian Sims. “A lot of candidates tend to be good at one or the other. They can talk about what the city was like for them in their childhood or in their career, or they can talk about a vision for the city going forward. But Jim was able to do both.”

How He Won

Sims is on to something. Kenney connected with voters on an emotional level. It was the only way an Irish guy from South Philly with trunkloads of political baggage could convince both Center City progressives and a huge chunk of black professionals and political leaders that he was their guy.

On paper, Kenney seems a peculiar champion for both voter groups. He’s a lifelong politician who’s held onto office by dint of the dwindling ethnic white rowhome vote. He was mentored by the corrupt Vince Fumo. Controversial union boss John Dougherty is his most crucial political ally. 

But in recent years, Kenney expanded his legislative portfolio dramatically, and his image changed as well. He embraced – and more importantly led the fight for — a number of high-profile progressive priorities: marijuana decriminalization, urbanism, LGBT rights and pushing back on tough immigration enforcement. Council takes few votes on education, but his rhetoric on schools moved to the left, away from more conservative positions he’d held earlier in his career. That proved enough to lock down another big base of voters for Kenney: education-oriented Philadelphians worried about traditional public schools.

Kenney’s progressive credentials were helped by the fact he was running against Abraham, who could not shake her image as a ’90s-era drug warrior, and Williams, who despite a largely liberal voting record was seen by a lot of voters as relatively conservative, given his views on school choice and his wealthy suburban backers. The press probably helped the likable Kenney out on that score as well.

“I think universally the media decided early that Jim Kenney was the progressive, their progressive,” said three-time mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who considered running as an independent this fall but passed. “The millionaires offend the media because none of you are millionaires or likely ever to be, and that they live in the suburbs and they were for school choice, and that made them right-wingers.”

For a lot of white progressives, and for new Philadelphians in particular, Kenney became the guy from the block who got them: an old Philadelphian who was just as worldly and interested in changing the city as they are.

Kenney’s successful courting of black voters was more complicated, and still more pivotal. In his council races, Kenney ran poorly in largely African American wards, often finishing well below non-incumbents.

 What changed? Three things.

  1. Large numbers of black voters were unsatisfied with Williams, the only high-profile black candidate in the race. Many were looking for an alternative.
  2. Kenney locked up union support early — and not just the Electricians. He won the backing of the city employee unions, the teacher’s union, the hospital workers union, to name just a few. These are unions with large numbers of middle-class black voters, many of whom seem to have voted for Kenney.
  3. He secured what proved to be a critical early endorsement from a group of influential black political leaders in Northwest Philadelphia, headed by State Rep. Dwight Evans.

Williams and his allies were enraged by that endorsement, and by other black political leaders who declared their support for Kenney later. How, they asked, could a guy with no real record of outreach to African American voters receive the blessing of senior black politicos?

“Look, I’ve known Anthony Hardy Williams longer than anyone. I knew his father. I spoke at his funeral. But I also have a right in my view to say who would be best for the City of Philadelphia,” Evans said. “We talked about it extensively and we all thought it was Kenney. He’s obviously grown a great deal.” 

Endorsements are a dime a dozen in political campaigns. But this one — amplified by extensive, effective TV advertisements paid for by the union-powered Super PAC backing Kenney — made a clear difference.

“A guy walked up to me in a supermarket, a black guy, and he said, ‘Can I trust Kenney?’ I told him, ‘I trust him.’ He said, ‘that’s enough for me,’” Evans said. Asked if the endorsement gave black voters permission to look at Kenney, instead of Williams, Evans said: “You got it. You got it.”

None of that political dealing would have mattered, though, without a smooth campaign operation, big money and effective television advertising. Kenney had all three working for him.

Compared to the sometimes comically disorganized Williams and Abraham campaigns, Kenney’s operation ran like the German train system. He let his people do their jobs, which says something interesting about the kind of mayor he’ll be if he wins the General election. And he had very good people — a mix of political pros he scooped up from the defunct Trujillo operation and locals who have known Kenney for years. 

And his union backers delivered in a big way. Unions sunk $2.3 million into two pro-Kenney Super PACs, which mounted an independent expenditure (IE) effort on Kenney’s behalf. And while that amount was dwarfed by the cash deluge of the pro-Williams Super PAC, the pro-Kenney money was far better spent, used mostly to air effective television ads, including some prepared by Neil Oxman’s Campaign Group.

“The Kenney campaign did a good job,” said Rendell. “Kenney was a solid candidate, the IE was well-funded, the TV was great. The Williams campaign was lackluster and Tony made a big mistake.”

How Williams Lost

Months ago, before a single poll was ever unveiled, political insiders and journalists anointed Anthony Williams the frontrunner.

It may seem boneheaded now, but they (well, we) dubbed him the favorite for good reason: Williams had Bob Brady, the head honcho of the city’s Democratic Party, on his side, as well as a raft of other boldfaced Philly political names. He had a solid base in West Philly. He also had the support of three unfathomably rich financial traders from the suburbs, who had created a Super PAC to prop him up. Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, they could spend unlimited amounts of cash — and they seemingly had unlimited amounts of cash — to support Williams so long as they didn’t coordinate with him directly. 

Above all, though, Williams was the only high-profile black candidate in a city where voters usually cast ballots for people who look like them. Williams was the son of Hardy Williams, for Christ’s sake, a giant in the city’s early black political power movement. And since African-Americans make up the plurality of voters in Philly, Tony had it in the bag. It was simple math.

And so Williams ran his campaign as though he’d already won. His team failed to craft a coherent campaign message, build a coalition, or attack Kenney until it was too late. Then, by the time he finally started acting like he was running for something, Williams picked a fight with the wrong guy: Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who is more popular than any other official in the city, Kenney included. 

Williams came into the campaign as the most well-known Democratic champion for charter schools and vouchers in all of Pennsylvania. And so onlookers assumed he had an obvious — and better yet, timely — message: Good schools for everyone.

But Williams didn’t tout his record on school choice in TV ads. The word “voucher” didn’t appear once in his 11-page policy paper on education. And at one point, Williams even said it was “curious” that the news media had labeled him the charter school advocate in the race, as if that was a bad thing.

In fact, a poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Philadelphia voters were largely on his side when it came to charters. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said that charter schools “improve education options” and “help keep middle-class families in the city.” Only one-third said they siphon too much money away from traditional public schools. 

“His strength coming into this campaign was that he was the guy whose principal policy credential was affording those who can’t afford it an opportunity to give their kids a chance to do well in school,” said Katz. “But he ran away from that.”

But it wasn’t as if Williams ditched school choice and then zeroed in effectively on issues of crime or jobs. He remained rudderless throughout the campaign.

“I don’t think that Tony Williams was ever able to define himself as to what he actually stood for,” says W. Wilson Goode, Sr., the first black mayor of Philadelphia. “It wasn’t a very strong message that came out of his campaign.”

An unfocused campaign wasn’t the only thing that did in Williams. He was also hurt by his friends in the suburbs, who are lot less capable at Philadelphia politics than they are on Wall Street.

American Cities, the super PAC funded by the three founders of the Susquehanna International Group, stockpiled a stunning $6.8 million as of early May. That amount of money should have made Williams invincible. It’s more than was raised by all six of the Democratic mayoral candidates combined.

But the super PAC never spent a dime attacking Kenney. This despite the fact that Kenney was the frontrunner by early May, and Williams, apparently realizing that, aired an attack ad himself. Williams seemed to be shouting from the rooftops to the super PAC: “Go negative! Go negative!”

Instead, American Cities aired positive ads about Williams up through the last day of the election. The ads were mediocre, and they never moved the needle in Williams’ direction. Yet American Cities kept flooding the airwaves with the same tired spots. It was political insanity.

Williams, too, was reluctant to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Kenney. Sure, he aired an ad slamming Kenney for bemoaning the fact that police “can’t shoot anybody” almost two decades ago. But he didn’t go after the ripest target of all: Kenney’s connections to Dougherty and Fumo.

The final televised mayoral debate of the season seemed like the perfect time to do that. By that point, several internal polls showed that Kenney had a statistically significant lead.

Instead, Williams took the opportunity to attack Ramsey, of all people. He said he would sack Ramsey because he has implemented stop-and-frisk, and “people have to be replaced when they stand for a policy that people don’t trust.” It was a Hail Mary pass to bring the black vote home.

Instead, it was the final death blow to Williams’ campaign.

A week after the debate, an Inquirer/NBC10 poll found that 78 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Ramsey. Williams, comparatively, had a popularity rating of just 47 percent.

Abraham’s Star Faded Fast

If Williams’ campaign seemed charmed in the beginning, Lynne Abraham’s appeared doomed from the start.

She may have begun the race as the frontrunner, but that was mostly because she had more name recognition than any other candidate after serving as the city’s District Attorney for almost two decades. Much of her support was thought to be soft, and sure enough, votes began melting away once Kenney and Williams aired TV ads.

Throughout the campaign, Abraham was dogged by questions about her age, as well as whether the woman once known as the “deadliest D.A.” was right for the times. She tried to paint 2015 Abraham as a softer, kinder politician than she was in the 1990s. She said on the campaign trail that she was “fine” with ending the death penalty and that she should have been tougher on bad cops as D.A. But voters didn’t buy it.

Without a deep-pocketed super PAC at her back, Abraham couldn’t stop the bleeding once her support began to erode. Like Williams, Abraham refrained from attacking Kenney even after he opened up a big lead. Instead of spending her precious dollars on ads contrasting her independence with the super PAC-dependent Kenney and Williams, she talked about schools.

The Longshots Didn’t Defy the Odds

Despite a rock-solid resume, former city solicitor/judge/HUD exec Nelson Diaz entered the race with significant disadvantages: He had virtually no name recognition and serious trouble fundraising. And his progressive pedigree, while seemingly a good fit for 2015, didn’t help him much after Kenney claimed the position as the progressive who could actually win.

Doug Oliver, the fresh-faced former senior VP at Philadelphia Gas Works, was energetic, charismatic, and far and away the best orator in the race. But he only raised $40,000, a positively tiny sum in a big-city mayoral race. “If Doug Oliver had a couple of millions of dollars, he might be the next mayor,” said Rendell.

And Milton Street — well, Milton Street was never going to win.

So Kenney is, in all likelihood, our next mayor. But a strong likelihood is not a certainty.

Kenney still must defeat Republican nominee Melissa Murray Bailey, who was unopposed in this election. And he might have another opponent to take on as well. 

A couple months ago, School Reform Commissioner (and longtime Kenney foe) Bill Green switched his party registration from Democrat to “no affiliation” to “leave all the doors open to me for the fall.” Back then, he said it was unlikely he would end up running for mayor in the November election.

On Tuesday, it still seemed unlikely, but maybe a little less so.

“It’s worth considering jumping in,” said Green. “But I have done nothing but leave myself that option.”