5 Takeaways From Monday’s Mayoral Debate

The candidates talked about schools, taxes, gentrification ... and Wing Bowl.


It’s hard to tell most days, but Philadelphia’s mayoral election is just around the corner. On Monday night, Democrat Jim Kenney and Republican Melissa Murray Bailey duked it out during a debate at WHYY’s headquarters. The Independent candidates were not invited. Reporters Katie Colaneri and Kevin McCorry moderated the event. Here are five takeaways from it:

1. Both candidates were pretty short on specifics sometimes.

There were a few moments during the debate when I had a flashback to the beginning of the primary campaign, a time in which the mayoral race was totally devoid of any ideas or policy papers.

At WHYY on Monday, that eerie vagueness came rushing back to the election.

For instance, McCorry asked Kenney if he supported any policies that would be a hard sell in City Council, and if so, how he would persuade members to back them anyway. Kenney responded, “Well, that’s not something I’m going to discuss at the moment. There are things that are going to come up, and I’m not going to put out there ideas and issues in order for them to be analyzed and picked apart before I have a chance to implement them or move forward with them.”

So much for voters getting a chance to weigh in on candidates’ proposals, I guess. Bailey was fuzzy on some details, too. She promoted a plan to get every public school student reading by third grade, but she wouldn’t say exactly where she’d get the funding to do that. She simply said she had lots of ideas to save money. Likewise, she didn’t specify how to finance her plan to hire 500 extra police officers.

2. Jim Kenney won the debate … because he didn’t lose.

As the overwhelming favorite in the mayoral race, Kenney’s path to victory at the debate was simple: Play it safe and avoid any gaffes. That’s exactly what he did, and that’s exactly how he won. He didn’t unveil any surprises or announce any new proposals. He repeated his mantra that he is committed “doing the best we can to make sure your zip code doesn’t matter about where your future goes.” And even when he took a jab at Bailey’s Republican Party, saying that the GOP’s “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality didn’t serve human beings, it seemed calculated to land softly.

This strategy served him, if not necessarily voters who were looking for a bold Kenney, well.

3. Melissa Murray Bailey was okay, minus one gaffe.

Her performance was fine. She was energized, intelligent, and embodied a fiery frustration with the city that many voters no doubt share. She didn’t seem to connect with the crowd as well as she did during the last debate, however, when audience members were loudly cheering her on. She also made this embarrassing gaffe:

4. The two candidates have fairly different visions for the city.

No duh, right? Of course they have different visions, you say: One is a Democrat and one is a Republican.

That may be true, but Bailey is trying to paint herself as a different kind of Republican — a softer, gentler one than you might see on Fox News. And indeed, Republicans in the city often are more moderate than those in, say, Congress. So there is sometimes significant overlap between Democratic and Republican candidates in Philadelphia.

On Monday night, though, Kenney and Bailey presented somewhat different platforms.

Take taxes. Bailey said she wanted to slash wage taxes and a portion of the city’s business tax. Kenney said he would cut taxes significantly, too, but only if he could maintain “acceptable” levels of city services. On education, Kenney reemphasized his plan to expand pre-K and create “community schools,” while Bailey said she wanted to help cut waste in the school district and ensure that every student is reading by third grade.

On gentrification, Bailey said she would support legislation to require developers of multi-unit dwellings to build some affordable housing in exchange for the city’s tax abatement. Kenney, meanwhile, said the local government must do a better job educating longtime residents about property tax breaks that can help them stay in their homes, and that community development corporations should be empowered to build affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods.

5. Bailey thinks Wing Bowl is “OK.”

Sometimes you need a break from talking about taxes and education. So at one point during the debate, the WHYY moderators instructed the candidates to select lighthearted questions from a fishbowl. Bailey picked this all-important question: What is your personal opinion of Wing Bowl? She responded, “I don’t know that I have ever thought about it. … I think it’s okay.”