How Jim Kenney Plans to Run City Hall

He's running a good, well-managed campaign. Next up? A $6.9 billion enterprise with 28,000 employees.

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Mayors need to know politics and policy. They need to be an ambassador for Philadelphia outside city lines, and a leader who can rally public opinion within.

But they also need to manage the enormous enterprise that is municipal government, an operation that spends $6.9 billion a year and employs nearly 28,000 people. And yet, somehow, management is often overlooked as a must-have mayoral skill.

In truth, we don’t know all that much about the management chops of Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney, who is a slam-dunk election away from being the city’s next mayor. His primary campaign is the largest enterprise Kenney has ever run. For the 23 years before that, he was in City Council, where he managed a Council office comprised of just a few employees.

That’s not a lot to go on.

But after Kenney sat down for an interview with Citified, we now know a bit more about the type of manager he intends to be. And there actually are some worthwhile lessons to take from the way he ran both his campaign and his council office.

Kenney listens to smart people. Expect him to assemble a talented team, and to give them a good bit of rope to carry out his plans.

Both as a candidate and a Councilman, Jim Kenney has shown a knack for attracting top talent and letting them do their jobs. Those are promising traits.

Asked to describe his management style, Kenney says that his is still “developing,” but that his basic approach is to hire good people and let them work. “It’s going to be allowing folks who I think are extremely capable of doing their job to do their job without too much micromanaging. Now, certainly we’ll meet and discuss and we’ll figure out what direction we’re going in, but I don’t expect to be telling the police commissioner or the streets department commissioner or somebody else how they should either plow snow or pick up trash.”

And this is actually what Kenney has done, both on Council and in his campaign. A lot of people who know Kenney are agog at just how disciplined and controlled his campaign for mayor has been. That’s largely because he’s trusted and listened to the political pros that are running it.

“Jim is very deferential to the staff. He asks questions. He wants to know why he’s doing what we ask him to do, but he ultimately defers to us,” says Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s communications director.

If there were any sense that Kenney was an empty vessel, this might actually be an alarming trait. But Kenney is positively bursting with strong opinions and convictions. So it’s actually encouraging to hear — and see — that he defers to experts on a lot of the tactical decisions, even if he occasionally throws little tantrums about it.

Kenney lucked into landing Hitt and his campaign manager, Jane Slusser. Both were hard up for work after their former boss, Ken Trujillo, abruptly withdrew from the campaign, and Kenney was the one guy in town hiring. But Kenney does deserve credit for being the guy at the top of smoothly-operating campaign that featured a staff with a mix of for-hire politcal pros and lifelong Philadelphians and Kenney loyalists, like his longtime Council chief of staff Deborah Mahler and Jim Engler, who was the director of legislation in Kenney’s council office.

Another indicator that Kenney is capable of rallying talented people to his cause is the policy advisory team he assembled early in the campaign. It’s a veritable laundry list of accomplished Philadelphians, from Alba Martinez to Otis Hackney III to Phil Rinaldi to Ellen Kaplan (to name just a few).

Kenney describes his mayoral dream team this way: “Diverse, intelligent, forward-thinking, hard-working. Not afraid to tell me when they think I’m wrong. Not afraid to go and have their own initiative, to have their own new ways of looking at things.”

Kenney probably won’t restructure city government. He has some new ideas about how the machinery of government should work, but he’s a traditionalist in a lot of respects.

Every mayor organizes his government a little differently. Mayor Nutter created a class of powerful deputy mayors to oversee operations across multiple departments. The arrangement has its plusses and minuses, but Kenney clearly isn’t a fan. Expect him to use a more traditional approach, one that’s more consistent with the structure outlined in the city charter.

“The charter’s not a bad document,” Kenney says. “It needs some tweaking every now and then, but it’s a pretty solid document to run a government.”

What does that mean, exactly? A few things.

  1. A much bigger role for the managing director. The charter intends for the managing director to be the operational chief of city government, with broad power over most every city department. Nutter’s managing director, Rich Negrin, is an important official in the administration, but he’s not running the show on a day-to-day basis. The next managing director very well might. “We’re going to have a managing director, that’s actually a managing director,” Kenney says. “And I don’t mean any offense to Rich, because he wasn’t allowed to manage.”
  2. Deputy mayors who have been cut down to size. Kenney’s deputies won’t manage multiple departments; they’ll advise on policy or message, or lead-up specific initiatives.
  3. More autonomous department commissioners. This just follows. Without a bevy of deputy mayors calling the strategic shots for the departments, commissioners will have broader authority under a Mayor Kenney.

Kenney is interested in reforming the city’s civil service regulations, which would be part of contract talks with the city’s unions. “I talk to department heads now, they tell me they can’t fill positions because they have to go through this whole crazy process,” Kenney says.

Does that mean more patronage? No, Kenney says. But he doesn’t have a problem with patronage where it exists (including, it should be said, in the mayor’s office). “What’s my view on patronage? Patronage employees perform and do a good job and are respectful to the citizens. Patronage has its place,” Kenney says.

There’s a lot to chew over here. Kenney’s acceptance of patronage will surely trouble some of his reform-oriented fans, while probably encouraging his more politically pragmatic ones.

But the more consequential question is probably this: How well will Jim Kenney’s successful management of tiny operations scale? After all, keeping a Council office working in sync is one thing. Straightening out L&I with limited resources? That’s another.