Will Jim Kenney and Council Play Nice?

Why it might not be all smooth sailing.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

The next mayor of Philadelphia is going to face massive challenges: A horribly underfunded pension system, a poverty rate higher than that of any other big city in the country, and a school district stuck in a seemingly never-ending budget crisis.

Oh, and City Council.

Sure, if Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney wins the general election as expected, he and most City Council members will share the same political party (because this is Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1; plus, lots of Democratic lawmakers are running unopposed in the fall). But being on the same team is no guarantee that Council and Kenney will get along, as Mayor Michael Nutter knows all too well.

In recent years, Council has expanded its reach by a wide margin. It hired its own lobbyist in Harrisburg, planned a total reorganization of city government, and killed Nutter’s proposed sale of Philadelphia Gas Works, to name just a few examples of its muscle-flexing.

Does Kenney have what it takes to work with City Council? He’ll need to have a productive relationship with lawmakers in order to push through his progressive agenda, which includes expanding pre-K, developing so-called “community schools,” and raising the minimum wage.

There are several reasons to think that Kenney will get along with Council. For one thing, he’s one of them. He served on Council for 23 years.

“He he has the strong relationships and firsthand experience crucial to working well with any legislative body,” said Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s campaign spokeswoman.

But then again, Nutter was a City Councilman before becoming mayor, too — and look what good that did him. When the current mayor pitched the idea of offloading PGW for nearly $2 billion — nothing to sneeze at — he couldn’t find one person on Council to simply introduce his proposal. And that’s not the first time Council has refused to sponsor his ideas.

What makes Kenney different than Nutter is that he has been endorsed by a number of his former colleagues, including Council members Cindy Bass, Marian Tasco, Mark Squilla, Bobby Henon and Darrell Clarke. Nutter, on the other hand, was not supported by a single Council member when he ran for mayor in 2007.

“Endorsements, to a certain degree, are worthless. But I think where they matter is that people are invested in your success,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political consultant. “Not one of Nutter’s colleagues endorsed him. Not one person was invested his success. Jimmy has that.”

Kenney’s relationship with Clarke, in particular, will be key. As Council president, Clarke has led the charge to grow Council’s power. He is behind a proposal to revamp the city’s Licenses & Inspections department, planning commission and other agencies. And Clarke is more than likely to remain president if re-elected as expected.

When Clarke endorsed Kenney, he said the Democrat “will have the effective relationship with Council that we need.”

Tasco, who is retiring at the end of this year, agreed with Clarke in an interview with Citified, saying that Kenney is more open-minded than Nutter.

“Michael’s personality is different than Kenney’s. With Michael, it was my way or the highway,” she said. “Kenney’s personality is one that attempts to get along and listen to what people are saying. When he first came on Council, he thought he knew it all. But Councilwoman Augusta Clark and I sort of mentored him. He is not a stubborn person.”

Councilmembers’ kind words about Kenney don’t end there, and they don’t come solely out of the mouths of lawmakers who endorsed him.

Councilman Bill Greenlee said, “Any administration has to respect Council, and I think Jim does.” Councilman Henon said Kenney has collaborated with him on bills tackling the city’s underground economy and tax delinquency, which proves that he can work well with others.

And Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who publicly backed Kenney’s chief primary opponent, state Sen. Anthony Williams, said of Kenney, “He’s straightforward. It’s, ‘Here’s the facts, here’s the opinion, here’s where we stand on this issue.’ I like that. He’s not disingenuous.”

But there are also reasons to believe that Kenney and Council would beef, at least eventually.

Part of this is outside of Kenney’s control. Council has recently diluted the “strong-mayor” form of government originally outlined in the city charter, and that would likely irritate the most well-intentioned of mayors.

“Are the changes that Clarke has pushed forward, which really aggrandize the role of Council, going to have an immediate effect on Kenney’s ability to get things done?” asked Ben Stango, a board member of Young Involved Philadelphia who previously worked in the Nutter administration. “The restructuring of L&I is a big deal. Would he face roadblocks because of those changes?”

City Hall insiders have also said Kenney was a loner at times on Council, preferring to work with his staff instead of partnering with colleagues. And, though he kept a cool head on the campaign trail, Kenney was known in the past for being hot-tempered. Such personality traits could make it challenging for Kenney to hammer out deals with Council members.

Additionally, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the controversial leader of the city’s electricians union, could hamper (or help) negotiations between Council and Kenney. Dougherty was arguably Kenney’s most important supporter during the primary mayoral race. His union wrote fat checks to a pro-Kenney super PAC and helped turn out voters on Election Day.

Dougherty also has key allies on Council, including Squilla and Henon, who is rumored to be thinking about running for the majority leader post. Is it inevitable that Kenney, Clarke and/or Dougherty would have a falling-out at some point?

And what would happen then? Would Clarke be able to keep Council in line? Would Kenney be able to retain support among lawmakers?

“If Kenney has a split with Doc, Doc will put him in short pants in City Council,” said Sam Katz, a three-time mayoral candidate in Philadelphia.

Katz also cautioned the media against overly praising Council and Kenney in the event that they get along, but don’t get much done.

“There will be swooning, like, ‘Wow, look at them, they’re working together,'” he said. “But will they attack the pension problem? Will they find a way to fund the schools? No, but they’ll work together.”

Regardless, most onlookers agree: At the very least, Kenney is likely to have a less contentious relationship with Council than Nutter has.