Insider: Why the Jim Kenney & Darrell Clarke Bromance Means Great Things for Philly

Rashed: After 8 years of Council-Nutter antipathy, City Hall is ready to work again.

Jim Kenney and Darrell Clarke

Jim Kenney and Darrell Clarke. | Photo courtesy of City Council.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.) 

Before the primary election on May 19, the previous 18 months of a lame duck mayor and no sure-fire favorite to win the Democratic nomination created a power vacuum at the top of city government. If you know the mayor isn’t aiming to be the next governor (see Rendell, Ed), then beyond the first term there’s no incentive to play nice when you can simply just wait him out. If you didn’t like Mayor Nutter or his policies, or you felt that working with Nutter put you at odds with council, the smart play was to see who had next and work on that.

But power abhors a vacuum. In times of uncertainty people seek and gravitate towards strong leadership, even when they don’t agree with the leader. Key players can’t operate on the sidelines for long without knowing who is going to be running the show. Businesses plan in 5-10 years cycles. Developers plan in 10-20 year cycles. Everyone likes to talk about change, but it is the other two C’s — continuity and contracts that keep a city humming.

The recent mayoral primary was not a referendum on policy or politics: 75+ forums, town halls and debates effectively eliminated any opportunity for candidates to truly distinguish themselves on policy. After the past eight years, what we were looking for was leadership style.

Much digital ink has been spilled in these pages about the burgeoning power and emerging prominence of City Council President Darrell Clarke. I think strong leadership in council is a good thing. During the past 18 months Council President Clarke has filled the power vacuum. He’s the prom king and he’s looking for a solid date and dance partner for the next eight years.

The best years our city has had in recent history were those two terms when then-Mayor Ed Rendell and Council President John Street danced together. They may not have liked each other, but they got the job done and looked good doing it. The stories of their working relationship are legendary. From 1992-2000 that relationship brought the city from the brink of insolvency to economic prosperity. Center City boomed, the convention center was built, there was an airport expansion and the city become desirable enough to attract the Republican National Convention, which held its conference here in 2000.

That mayor-council bromance ended 16 years ago. The last eight years have featured a clash of personalities with the mayor on one side and the council president and council on the other.  The rancor often seemed petty, but its impact was plenty serious. The divide in City Hall slowed progres, and froze some in the business community. You could argue that not one person in recent memory has been more effective at unifying city council than Mayor Nutter.

Fortunately if there is a Mayor Jim Kenney in January, there will be harmony between the fourth and second floors of city hall once again.

When Clarke endorsed Kenney, his remarks gave real insight into the likely relationship they’ll have: “With Kenney, we’ll have the effective relationship with Council that we need.”

Councilwoman Marian Tasco was more direct:

“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.”

There are signs that they are already working together behind the scenes on a framework of personnel and policy. They are clearly on the same page with what they want for the city. Both want strong schools, meaningful job opportunities for working families and real efforts on empowering the black middle class. Both realize that diversity and inclusion aren’t just buzzwords. In the poorest big city in America creating economic for people of color is critical to have generational impact.

How we ultimately get there will vary. Budget parameters, a real funding formula for schools, the looming pension crisis and the economy continuing to recover will all create waves. It would be unrealistic to think that problems won’t arise or that Clarke and Kenney will always agree on every issue.  But just knowing that council and the mayor are in the same boat and rowing in the same direction should be powerfully reassuring to everyone.

Mustafa Rashed is the President & CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a government relations, advocacy and consulting firm. He is Chairman of Friends of Doug Oliver, PAC, and he was the campaign manager of Oliver’s recent mayoral run.