Insider: Black Pols Will “Rue the Day” They Backed Kenney

McCalla: The unimaginable happened. Black elected officials used power derived from black voters to deny a black mayoral candidate.

The Kenney coalition. | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

The Kenney coalition. | 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.) 

Over the last several weeks, culminating in the Tuesday election of Jim Kenney as the Democratic nominee for mayor, an historic shift was taking place amongst African American pols that creates a new reality in city politics.

Black political empowerment, before it went from a movement to a slogan, was fiercely predicated on cultural affinity. That is to say, like most Philadelphians, Blacks were going to “vote race.” Through the 1960’s, only three or four black elected officials — Congressman Robert Nix, Republican Councilwoman Ethel Allen, Councilmen Earl Vann and Tom McIntosh — made it into office in Philadelphia and not all at once. Political impotence combined with the oscillating indifference/hostility of City Hall, forged the determination to grow in power as the black population grew.

It was this determination that lifted City Managing Director W. Wilson Goode into the Mayor’s Office in 1984. He go there through many small donations, church fundraisers and the utter devotion of black voters who fervently believed in cultural affinity. The jubilation at his election — Philly’s first black mayor — was more than glorious for the community that lifted him up. Mayor Goode would again become an avatar of cultural affinity when, after his egregious failures of the MOVE disaster, he was reelected by the substantial majority of black voters.

Fast forward to today and we look back on 23 years of black mayors (or, just three mayors out of 98).

Given that blacks are 55-60 percent of the Philadelphia Democratic party, this mayoral primary was tailor made for Sen. Anthony Williams, the sole high profile black candidate. So pronounced was black support for black mayoral candidates that the best political mind in town — Ed Rendell —declared “Kenney can’t win as long as Lynne is in the race,” and dismissed Kenney as the “flavor of the week.” Ed couldn’t imagine that black pols would use the power they gained through the numerical superiority of black Philadelphians to deny a black candidate the mayor’s office. Despite the un-imaginability of it all, the facts are plain: Black voters elected Jim Kenney.

In a daring, creative move, Kenney, or his very powerful sponsor Johnny Doc, embraced a strategy to “divide and conquer” the black and Latino vote by appealing to the individual needs of black and Latino pols. Welcomed into the tent were Dwight Evans, Marian Tasco, 11 Latino ward leaders, State Senator Vincent Hughes and many others. Perhaps it’s a function of the success of the political empowerment movement that black pols have gone from being conscience-based advocates to self-interested, transactional, wheeler-dealers.

The conversion was further evident in the fickle entrepreneurship of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, aka the 70th Ward. In mid-April, the membership of the Black Clergy endorsed Anthony Williams. A few weeks later, Rev. Terrence Griffith, the president of the Black Clergy, stood next to Darrell Clarke when he endorsed Jim Kenney.

In every city, every politician uses cultural affinity, to one degree or another, to get votes. Even President Obama, when speaking in Germantown’s Vernon Park quoted one of Malcolm X’s most famous lines. Because of its fame, he didn’t need to attribute it. He gracefully played the “cultural affinity card.”

I predict that black pols will rue the day they so easily tossed aside that “card,” making it unavailable for their use should they have a non-white challenger or seek citywide office. Only the most desperately hypocritical would use it after having discredited it, but we’re still talking about politicians, so anything is possible.

Most black voters had never heard of Jim Kenney, despite his quarter century on City Council. When Darrell Clarke walked along Cecil B. Moore Ave. with him, it didn’t matter if this was Jim’s first or 40th to North Philadelphia. He had Clarke’s seal of approval.

I think it’s unlikely the “daring, creative,” move to entice black pols into leading their voters to Camp Kenney the project of Kenney himself. These deals likely required the cunning and reach of the powerful, motivated, kinetic Johnny Doc.

It would be unfair to attribute the Williams loss solely and simply to the self-interest of other black pols. Poor messaging was an important factor. Williams had an early start and a great many positive things to say, but never said them. The commercial, paid for by a supportive PAC, with a black man wearing a hardhat was particularly void of message and a waste of cash.

Racial math became racial myth when John Street defeated two black and one white opponent to become mayor. Previous “wisdom” was that multiple black candidates divide the black vote and elect the white candidate. The Kenney election proves that blacks will vote for white candidates in large numbers, even if there is only one high profile black candidate in the field. It’s not everyday that political rules change, but we must take note when they do.

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.