Meet Mayor Kenney’s Inner Circle
Mayor-elect Jim Kenney won’t be sworn-in until January 4th, but he’s already made some crucial decisions that could make or break his administration’s first year.
Well, almost made.
We’re talking, of course, about who Kenney chooses to hire for the big, big jobs in city government. Police commissioner. Managing director. Chief of staff, and so on.
Officially, nothing’s been decided. But Kenney and his advisers have spent much of the 5+ months since May’s primary election interviewing candidates and assembling their short lists.
So without further ado, here are our speculative — but reasonably well informed — best bets on who’s going to get what job.
The job: The City Charter makes the managing director the chief operating officer of the city. Mayor Nutter didn’t want to run his government that way, so he spread operational authority around amongst an array of deputy mayors. Not Kenney. He clearly wants to make his managing director the day-to-day boss of city government. This is going to be a big, big job under Kenney.
Our bet: Michael DiBerardinis. He’s not the only candidate for the job, but DiBerardinis seems to be the leading one. Right now he’s the city parks and recreation commissioner as well as deputy mayor for environmental and community resources. He used to run the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under Gov. Ed Rendell. DiBerardinis is a widely-respected administrator, who got his start in government railing against it as a community activist (which gives him a certain credibility in political circles that a lot of bureaucrats just don’t have).
Prediction confidence: Two crystal balls, on a scale of 1-3. 🔮🔮
The job: Just a little matter of 1) Filling the shoes of Charles Ramsey, the most popular public figure in the city 2) Driving down crime, after many of the obvious fixes have already been made 3) Keeping a lid on corruption and bad behavior and 4) Defusing tension between police and the citizens they serve in a post-Ferguson age.
Our bet: First Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross seems to have a stone cold lock on this. He’s the choice of the FOP and political actors alike. Ross is considered capable and intelligent, and he’s managed the neat trick of being open to reform without alienating rank-and-file cops.
Prediction confidence: 🔮🔮🔮
Chief of Staff
The job: This job is whatever the mayor wants it to be. Chiefs of staff can be all-powerful, in the mold of David L. Cohen for Mayor Rendell, or they can operate in a far more limited role, serving principally as a gatekeeper to the mayor. Kenney looks to be giving the Managing Director the serious juice, which suggests the chief of staff will not be the de facto #2 in a Kenney administration. Will the chief of staff be the #3? Or something else? We don’t really know.
Our bet: Jane Slusser, Kenney’s campaign manager. If she indeed takes the office next to Kenney’s, that would be an amazing turn of events for a talented campaign operative who started this election working for Ken Trujillo, not Kenney. Slusser would bring some youth to Kenney’s cabinet, not to mention her proven chops at moving public opinion in the city.
Prediction confidence: 🔮
The job: Somehow make the numbers add up in a deeply impoverished city with enormous long-term pension liabilities and a weak tax base. It’s a thankless, nigh impossible job.
Our bet: More of the same, in the form of Nutter admin vet Rob Dubow, who capably guided the city through its worst fiscal crisis in generations and actually managed to improve City Hall’s bond rating along the way. Dubow is utterly unflappable, and while we’ve taken issue with the city’s performance on tax collection, there’s little question the Nutter admin’s overall financial management has been excellent. Dubow deserves much of the credit for that.
Prediction confidence: 🔮🔮🔮
The job: The city solicitor is both the mayor’s lawyer and the city’s chief legal officer. It’s a complex gig. The solicitor manages an office full of lawyers that argue the city’s cause whenever it is sued or sues. And the solicitor advises the mayor and other city officials on what’s legal and what’s not. Solicitors can shape policy in profound ways.
Our bet: Sources say Sozi P. Tulante, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, is in the running for the job, but he’s not the only candidate and we’re not sure who the others are. Tulante is whip-smart and he’s got an incredible personal story. Bringing a corruption-busting Assistant U.S. Attorney into the administration would also signal that Kenney will take ethics seriously.
Prediction confidence: 🔮
Commissioner, Licenses and Inspections
The job: Cue the Mission Impossible theme song … Kenney has already said he won’t be keeping Carlton Williams, Nutter’s beleaguered L&I chief. The question is, who would possibly want this job? The next L&I commish has to restore public confidence in the agency, repair the morale of the department and bring real vigor to the inspections process. Oh, and it would also be nice if the next commish could develop a coherent anti-blight strategy.
Our bet: David J. Perri, current commissioner of the Streets Department. Perri is a experienced, capable administrator who worked in L&I before he made the move to streets. He’s a pro, and that could be just what the department needs right now. But we’re not sure he’s the only candidate, and one has to think Kenney is at least entertaining the possibility of an outside candidate, given the department’s many problems.
Prediction confidence: 🔮
Deputy Managing Director, or Director of Planning and Development
Our bet: Brian Abernathy, the current executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, former exec in the managing director’s office, and former aide to retired Councilman Frank DiCicco. We switched the job/name order on this one because while it’s clear that Abernathy will have a senior role in the Kenney administration, we haven’t been able to figure out exactly what that role will be. Abernathy would be a senior adviser who’s equally comfortable at managing departments and traversing tricky political waters. That’s a rare mix of skills. He’s also got great relationships with Council members.
Prediction confidence: 🔮🔮
Deputy Managing Director, or Similar Role
Our bet: Tumar Alexander, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Nutter and one his chief liaisons to City Council. Alexander knows City Hall inside and out, and he’s got great relationships with people throughout the building — which is a neat trick, considering how wretched Nutter’s relations with Council have been. Nobody blames Alexander for that.
The job(s): As with Abernathy, we don’t know where Alexander will land in the Kenney administration, but we hear from a source close to Kenney’s campaign that a deputy managing director position is a possibility. If Abernathy lands elsewhere, Alexander could be the deputy in the managing director’s office, which would be a position of real influence.
Prediction confidence: 🔮🔮
Chief education adviser
The job: Whatever Kenney wants it to be. There’s no Charter-defined education job in City Hall. Nutter created an Office of Education, and appointed a director. Kenney will likely do something similar, but we don’t know that for sure.
Our bet: Otis Hackney, the ultra-well regarded principal of South Philadelphia High School who did so much to improve the climate of the school following racial strife there in 2009. Hackney would bring real-world experience and big-picture thinking to the Kenney administration’s thinking on schools. There may be other candidates, but if Hackney would take this job, it’s hard to think of better ones.
The job: These are the folks who work to tame the press, shape the mayor’s public image and make the case for his initiatives. We don’t know yet how Kenney will choose to structure this team, but there’s often an official spokesperson — tasked with taking countless irritating questions from the press and putting the best possible spin on any given story — and then a Communications director, who works at a more strategic level.
Our bet: Lauren Hitt and potentially Mike Dunn (yeah, that Mike Dunn). Hitt is currently the spokeswoman for the Kenney campaign, and Dunn is the former longtime head of KYW’s City Hall Bureau. Sources tell us Dunn is a possibility, but not a lock.
Prediction confidence:🔮🔮 for Hitt, 🔮 for Dunn.
Chief of the Kenney Transition Team
The job: In theory, the job is to ensure that the Kenney administration hits the ground running, and that the transition from Mayor Nutter to the new guy is smooth. In practice, a lot of the work tends to fall to lower-level staffers, and the transition chair operates more as a political ambassador for the incoming mayor.
Our bet: Dwight Evans. The longtime state representative was one of the first prominent African-Americans to endorse Kenney in the primary and has been credited with helping him win the election. Evans is also running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, though, so there is a small chance he could be too busy for the job.
The diversity question
For much of the last few months, the names most often mentioned as likely Kenney senior staff members have been DiBerardinis, Dubow, Abernathy and Ross. That’s led to some raised eyebrows in the political class, who’ve wondered if Kenney would live up to his oft-repeated promise to build an administration that resembles Philadelphia.
When we mentioned that to Kenney spokeswoman Hitt, she replied: “The administration is going to be diverse from the top on down. Ensuring diversity was our first priority when we put together our policy committee and the unprecedented coalition behind this campaign. It will be our first priority throughout the hiring process for the administration.”
Other names in the mix…
You may be wondering, what about the Fire commissioner? Or the Health commissioner? Or DHS? Or Revenue?
The short answer is we don’t know who’s getting those jobs. And if we’ve heard rumors, they rate below a single crystal ball. It’s likely Kenney is still weighing multiple candidates — or searching for candidates — for many of those posts.
But we do know from a source close to the campaign that the nascent administration has a list of names being considered for one or more senior positions. We’re just not sure which position. That list includes: current Revenue Commissioner Clarena Tolson (who we hear is being considered for something more senior than her current gig), former Council candidate and economic development guru Andy Toy, Cynthia Figueroa, president of Congreso, Harold Epps, a leader in the city’s Black business community and president of PRWWT Services, and Nina Ahmad, a civically-engaged senior executive at JNA Capital Inc., a development and finance firm based in the city.