The Jim Kenney Forecast: Cloudy, With a Chance of Greatness

The likely next mayor is feeling his way toward a big bold vision for a unified Philadelphia. But he's not there yet.

Kenney and supporters on election night. Photograph by Matt Slocum, Associated Press

Kenney and supporters on election night. Photograph by Matt Slocum, Associated Press

When Jim Kenney took the stage to accept the Democratic nomination for mayor about two hours after polls closed on May 19th, he was cheered by just about every bloc in contemporary Philadelphia politics. Labor was there, of course. So were veteran African-American politicians Dwight Evans and Marian Tasco, who helped the white guy from South Philly defy racial history and win big in black neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion and West Oak Lane. In the crowd, lifelong white rowhome voters mingled a little awkwardly with young-ish progressives and transplants. There weren’t a lot of big-business interests in the room, but Kenney had a quick private word with George Norcross, the insurance executive and South Jersey political boss who has turned his hungry eyes toward Philadelphia.

Kenney seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. His speech was a brisk, workmanlike five minutes, but he hit hard the theme that helped him lap everybody else in the final six weeks of the race: “Our campaign was a broad and unprecedented coalition of diverse groups, many of whom came together for the first time to support me. … We must work together with the understanding that every neighborhood matters.”

Running and winning as a unity candidate is a nifty trick in a city with as many political, racial and cultural divisions as Philadelphia. Attempting to actually govern as a unifying figure — well, that’s either inspiring or naive, depending on just how deep your cynicism goes.

But that’s what Kenney intends — at least for now. In the wake of the election, he seems burdened. Sometime during the campaign, he started to see — really see — the whole of the city. When you ask him about priorities now, he doesn’t talk about pensions or school funding or even jobs. Not without prodding. He talks about Philadelphia’s soul. “I feel that this city needs to set a tone of true brotherhood and sisterhood,” Kenney says in his campaign headquarters nearly a month after primary night. Remember, this is, technically, still a campaign operation. He’ll face GOP nominee Melissa Murray Bailey in November, and just maybe his old Council rival Bill Green, who is toying with a long-shot Independent bid for mayor. Kenney goes on: “I don’t mean to make that sound soapy and syrupy, but we really need to care about each other and make sure every neighborhood has the potential to be a great neighborhood.”

In theory, this could be an act. It sure turned out to be one for (distant) runner-up Anthony Williams, who used the slogan “One Philadelphia” but campaigned as though he only had to rack up big numbers in predominantly black neighborhoods. That’s an election strategy Kenney himself knows well. Four years ago, when Kenney last ran for City Council, the only wards he won were in white, working-class bastions in deep South Philadelphia and the Far Northeast. Back then, if it had been up to Strawberry Mansion and West Oak Lane, Kenney wouldn’t even have been reelected to Council.

But the Kenney of 2015 is a different model. He oozes empathy. Kenney has always had an impulsive compassionate streak, a tendency to pick up and dust off “strays,” as Liz Spikol wrote of him in the April issue of Philadelphia magazine. Now Kenney sounds like a guy who wants to bind up the wounds of the entire city.

The most dynamic and prosperous big American cities — places like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Austin — didn’t become what they are today through community unity or by lifting every neighborhood up. Their urban renaissances were driven by and for elites: the Internet start-up kings, the titans and dukes of finance, the upper-middle-class creative professionals.

Only recently has it begun to look like Philadelphia might follow the same track. We marvel at Center City’s growth and are agog at the cranes dotting the skyline, but the fact is, Philadelphia’s revival is modest compared to the true booms under way in many other American cities. Between July 2013 and July 2014, Philadelphia’s population grew by 0.3 percent, and we cheered. Denver, meanwhile, grew by 2.4 percent — in a single year. Seattle posted 2.3 percent growth; even old East Coast Boston grew by 0.9 percent, or three times as much as Philadelphia. And for all the local hand-wringing over gentrification, Philadelphia remains a blue-collar town, with the smallest share of high-income residents of any of the 10 biggest cities in the nation. Indeed: There are 58 percent fewer households earning above $200,000 in Philadelphia than in the average U.S. big city.

For better or worse, Philadelphia has largely avoided the elite-fueled transformations that have fundamentally changed the character of other major American cities. And yet despite that, Kenney’s victory is being interpreted by the national press as part of an anti-elite, progressive backlash that’s emerging in some of these fast-changing cities. Bill de Blasio’s election in New York is the most obvious example, but Marty Walsh in Boston is another, and so was Chuy Garcia’s surprisingly strong challenge to Rahm Emanuel in Chicago.

Including Kenney in that group feels a little forced, partly because there actually isn’t a tidal wave of new elites for Philadelphians to lash out at, and partly because Kenney’s career doesn’t neatly fit into the progressive, champion-of-the-people box (his tutorship by Vince Fumo, his ties to John Dougherty, his early-career enthusiasm for head-cracking policing and school vouchers). The most critical distinction, though, is that Kenney has no disdain for wealth or business (excluding, that is, those suburban rich guys who spent more than $7 million trying to beat him). He’s not wary of growth or change. Indeed, he’s wildly impatient with (some) Philadelphia parochialisms. Philadelphia voters didn’t flock to Kenney to freeze or roll back the clock — or if they did, they voted for the wrong guy.

And yet over the course of the campaign, and in the weeks since, it’s become increasingly clear that Kenney is deeply uncomfortable with the contemporary template for urban revival.

For Kenney, the moral imperative is a strong influence. It’s not always a considered influence, or a smart one, and it’s damned certain that he’s made his share of deals with amoral actors. So better probably to call it a selective moral imperative. But when it’s engaged — look out. Kenney’s sense of right and wrong is a big part of what drives him, more so than for many politicians. Kenney can’t stomach the prospect of a Philadelphia renaissance that only benefits new and well-to-do Philadelphians, even though they represent a big slice of his supporters. Not after a campaign that brought him face-to-face with countless residents who’ve benefitted not a whit from the city’s modest progress. That would be wrong.

“Look, I want to do biotech, high tech, eds and meds. I want to continue to pursue that — we need to pursue it,” Kenney says. “But I think the thing that we need to do is to get blue-collar people to work in industrial-style jobs.”

This is the implicit promise of Kenney’s candidacy: that he’ll drag the whole city forward, without sabotaging the momentum of new Philadelphia.

It’s an appealing vision. Inspiring, even. But is it realistic? Broad-based economic growth is elusive all across America, particularly in big cities. And while manufacturing actually is playing an important role in job growth in some Sunbelt and Western cities, industrial jobs have had nothing whatsoever to do with the improving fortunes of East Coast cities. Since 1970, manufacturing employment is down 90 percent in Philadelphia, 92 percent in D.C., 89 percent in New York and 84 percent in Boston.

That’s a hell of a trend Kenney wants to buck. There very well could be some real opportunities for the city around energy and, Kenney would argue, the port. But his focus on industrial jobs does defy the new conventional wisdom that cities succeed when they cater to the creative class.

And then there’s the cultural piece. How do you hold a changing city together? How do you make all Philadelphians — or more of them, at any rate — feel like they’re part of the city’s progress? How do you harness the energy of new Philadelphians without enraging and alienating lifers?

Or, put in a purely political context, how can Jim Kenney possibly satisfy the many blocs that make up his grand new base?

IT WAS JUST A PRELIMINARY IDEA, just something he was kicking around. But it was so novel, and it seemed to reveal so much about the way a Mayor Jim Kenney might operate, that the press was captivated. What if, Kenney wondered, the legions of ticket-writers employed by the Philadelphia Parking Authority were empowered to enforce more than parking regulations? What if they could check out permits at construction sites, or issue tickets for trash left out on the curb too long, or alert the city to unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm?

The upsides — backup for overstretched city departments, better enforcement of quality-of-life violations — are pretty clear to anyone who can read the words “Philadelphia Parking Authority” without convulsing. And the downsides? The Parking Authority is the biggest bastion of political patronage in Philadelphia, employing more than 1,000 politically connected workers, most of whom are “sponsored” by ward leaders, Council members and so on. Giving politically wired workers power to go after more than parked cars is, at minimum, something that ought to be considered very carefully.

Kenney, apparently, sees a win-win, a way to satisfy multiple constituencies at once: the Center City progressives who are so focused on urban quality-of-life, and the transactional politicos who are worried about getting jobs for their people. For a figure like Kenney, who straddles both worlds and wants to bring them closer together, there’s nothing uncomfortable or contradictory in addressing a new Philadelphia priority with an apparatus that epitomizes old Philadelphia. Why can’t a ward leader’s cousin who happens to have a job at the PPA team up with those activist millennials so torqued up about blocked sidewalks?

Another example: Kenney wants to restore street cleaning to the city. Litter is loathed by a lot of Philadelphians, not just new ones. But plenty of longtime residents are willing to live with the mess if it means they don’t have to move their cars once a week for the street sweepers.

Kenney’s plan? To bring street cleaning back, but only in those neighborhoods that decide they want it. Communities that would rather live with the litter can keep things as they are now. Which should work great so long as we start nailing down the trash on those streets that prize convenient parking above cleanliness.

These are small, very early examples, obviously, but I think they’re revealing. They show us that for all his certitude on certain moral questions, Kenney looks like he’ll be far more pragmatic and willing to compromise than Mayor Nutter has been. That could make for a productive mayoralty, but also one that skeeves out some reform-minded progressives. (Kenney’s political associations are further evidence of both. Asked about Norcross, Kenney says: “He’s just a businessperson who has an interest in government and how things improve. And I like visionaries.”) Second, Kenney’s early maneuvers on expanded PPA powers and street cleaning show the limits of empathy. Kenney won in significant part because he seemed like the only candidate in the field who really got both old Philadelphia and new Philadelphia. But just because Kenney understands those halves of the city doesn’t mean that they understand one another.

Old and new is just one of the divides Kenney is now trying to bridge. He’s thinking a lot about breaking down those walls that separate black Philadelphia from white, rich Philadelphia from poor.

“What does Philadelphia want to be?” Kenney asks himself out loud. “When you say Portland, you say New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago — ” He trails off there, but his meaning is clear. These towns, they have an image. They’re about something. Philadelphia? Not so much. “I want it to be more than a cracked bell and a cheesesteak. I want at the end of these four or eight years, I want Philadelphia to be known for — I don’t know what that is yet.”

“Try,” I urge him.

He goes back to the soap and syrup. “I think compassion. I think education. Community unity. Again, caring for each other and realizing that we’re all in this together. That it’s not these silos or segregated or separated neighborhoods that are on their own. That we’re all woven into this.”

But what does that look like on the ground? “I don’t know yet,” he replies.

It’s a frustrating answer. “Caring about your neighbor — what does that materialize as?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Kenney says a third time. “I think the Pope’s going to help. I really do. I think there’s going to be a real breakthrough in September. Whatever he has to say here is going to resonate nationwide and worldwide. And I think that Philadelphia being the focal point of that is going to be a real opportunity to look at our problems and address our problems in different ways than we’ve been doing it.”

He goes on in this vein for a while. In one sense, it’s remarkable and deeply disappointing that the runaway winner of a big-city mayoral primary could fail to have a coherent answer for such a central question. Kenney skeptics are going to read this and think to themselves: “We told you so.” But I attribute Kenney’s responses to two things. One is his atypical and welcome candor. There are easy, smooth-sounding answers to those big, vague questions, but Kenney isn’t well versed in bullshit. Second, I get the clear sense that Jim Kenney is searching, earnestly searching, for truer, more consequential answers to the big questions than mere political campaigns require.

Let’s hope he finds some.