Jim Kenney: The Anti-Nutter?

Kenney is asking "what would Michael do?" And then often doing the opposite.

Photographs by Jeff Fusco

Photographs by Jeff Fusco

I RAN INTO Jim Kenney one summer evening outside City Hall. This was in July 2014, back when he was a councilman who wanted to be mayor but didn’t think he could win.

He was feuding with Mayor Nutter. That wasn’t unusual, but the bad blood between them was thicker than normal. Kenney had gotten a big marijuana decriminalization bill through Council a month earlier. It was a marquee accomplishment for a guy considering a mayoral run, and a reform that he fervently believed in. The hitch? Nutter. The Mayor hadn’t signed the bill, and he was threatening a veto. In the meantime, 264 people had been charged with marijuana possession, a fact this magazine had reported that very day.

I figured Kenney was pissed. “Hey, Councilman,” I said, “did you see the news about the marijuana arrests?”

“Two hundred sixty-four!” Kenney shouted at me, nailing the total. Then he jabbed his finger in the direction of City Hall, and of Mayor Nutter, and spat out: “Because he’s a fucking dickhead, that’s why.” Kenney stalked off without another word, his torso jutting ahead of his legs as though they couldn’t carry him away from Nutter fast enough.

The men used to be friends. In their days on City Council together, they’d share eye-rolls over dimwitted comments from colleagues. After Nutter was elected mayor, Kenney was a trusted Council ally. He backed Nutter’s politically suicidal plan to close 11 libraries during the 2008 recession; that’s friendship.

But over time, the relationship turned toxic. While Nutter struggled to find his footing as a new mayor socked by a fiscal crisis, Kenney morphed from reliable supporter to concerned friend, to skeptic, to bitter foe. Kenney was confounded by Nutter’s treatment of Council, and enraged by his long war with the city’s unions. One of Kenney’s strengths is his empathy, but if you get on his bad side, well, the empathy evaporates — and so does his restraint. Kenney started savaging the Mayor (and his staff) on Twitter, and he’d do the same anytime a reporter would call.

So it was striking that Kenney refrained from attacking Nutter in the 2015 mayoral primary. Unlike Councilman Kenney, candidate Kenney was remarkably careful and disciplined. Through the election, and even now, Kenney speaks only sparingly of Nutter, and then it’s mostly to praise his fiscal stewardship and his record on ethics, albeit in desultory fashion.

But it’s an act. Or, if you prefer, a kindness. Everything Kenney actually does screams that he intends to govern as the anti-Nutter. In ways big and small, Kenney appears to be actively asking: What would Michael do? Then he does the opposite. Consider: After winning his primary back in 2007, Nutter took an extended victory lap, reveling in his unlikely triumph. He fed the hype around him with uncut rhetorical oxygen: It was a “new day,” a “new way,” and Philadelphia would be transformed. His inaugural party at the Navy Yard was attended by more than 2,000 people, and it climaxed with Nutter’s rendition of “Rapper’s Delight.” He was backed by the Roots.

And Kenney? After his primary, there was no gloating, no glad-handing. He was on the podium for three minutes after his win in November’s election. “It is not what I am going to do, it is what we are going to do,” he said. His speech finished, Kenney immediately left his party. As for the inaugural celebration, Kenney says to expect a block party, not a blowout.

This isn’t just a matter of style. In an interview at his stripped-down campaign office two blocks south of City Hall, Kenney — who was as focused and crisp as I’ve ever seen him — outlined a governing philosophy that he considers fundamentally different from Nutter’s. For Mayor Kenney, Council and city unions will be essential partners, not antagonists. In Kenney’s view, strong alliances with other powerful actors like Dwight Evans and John Dougherty don’t undermine his independence, but rather are a testament to the breadth of the Kenney coalition. The mayor isn’t the boss. “It’s not like this anger and this angst and this disrespect,” he says of his political relationships. The mayor is the “point guard.”

Governing, Kenney says, is “very complex and very difficult, but at its essence, it’s simple: mutual respect for each other and a mutual desire to move forward together, leaving the least many people behind.” That, in a sentence, is his governing philosophy.

The even shorter version: “Every neighborhood matters.” It’s a phrase Kenney uses often. There’s a lot packed into those three words: a commentary on income inequality, a call to unity, and a critique of Nutter, with his focus on epic events, Center City infrastructure and Philadelphia’s global image.

“Every neighborhood doesn’t matter at the moment,” Kenney says when I ask him why that theme, and why now. “I think we have the responsibility as a government and as a city, all of us, to help raise everyone up. Not just certain neighborhoods.” And why hasn’t that happened already? “I don’t think the attention has been paid to it.”

There’s more, all in the same vein. Eventually, I tell Kenney that what he’s describing sounds “like a 180 from how Mayor Nutter has operated.” His campaign communications director, Lauren Hitt, is sitting in on the interview. She smiles at the observation. Kenney doesn’t smile at all. He says, flatly: “I’m not going to articulate on that.”

IN BRIEF, the case against Michael Nutter goes like this: He’s a politically inept, arrogant, micromanaging, poor-people-shaming, Center City-loving, labor-hating, image-obsessed know-it-all — a mayor who vowed to cut taxes but raised them, a man who promised to reinvent government but instead only tinkered, an education advocate who left city schools even more desperate than he found them, a purported reformer who failed to take down the machine.

That all sounds pretty bad. And in political circles, those views — or variations on them — are widely held. If you believe Nutter was all that and worse, running in the opposite direction makes a lot of sense.

But that take is more a caricature of Nutter’s flaws than a sober assessment of his legacy. Whatever his political failings, Mayor Nutter is leaving Philadelphia safer, bigger, better educated at the collegiate level, more cosmopolitan and somewhat more prosperous than he found it in 2007. On his watch, millennials and immigrants flooded in, the city’s profile on the world stage grew, and corruption was simply not tolerated.

So what does it mean, then, that Kenney is setting himself up as the anti-Nutter?

On policy, Kenney is clearly more liberal than Nutter, pretty much across the board. Nutter may be a true-blue Democrat by national standards, but in the world of Philly politics, he’s a moderate, if not conservative. Nutter leans to Philly’s right on labor, on education, on crime. Kenney doesn’t.

When Kenney says “Every neighborhood matters,” he’s telegraphing a pivot toward the many Philadelphia neighborhoods that stagnated during the Nutter years. The obvious comparison here is to Mayor John Street, who made the city’s most distressed neighborhoods his top priority after Ed Rendell jump-started Center City. Street famously towed 40,000 abandoned cars immediately after taking office in 2000, then followed up with his $300 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

What will Kenney’s pivot look like? “Community schools” should be a big part of it. This emerging model — which brings social services into public schools to make them true community hubs — feels very Kenney and not at all like Nutter, who was all about funding and accountability on schools.

Kenney is cagey on the rest, but he’s exploring the possibility of major investments in parks, recreation centers and other public facilities. It depends, Kenney says, on what the city can afford and how much private donors step up. (He’s in talks with the William Penn Foundation, for instance.) “Those things are worthwhile, and they do generate belief in neighborhoods that there’s equity,” Kenney says.

More than policy or focus, though, what differentiates Kenney from Nutter is approach. Nutter may be a ward leader and lifelong politician, but he’s long thought of himself — and others in Philly’s political circles have thought of him — as an independent, even an outsider. Nutter had few big-name allies back in 2007. He won that race largely on his own. And for better or worse, Nutter largely governed on his own as well.

Kenney, though, was swept into office on a wave of organized support. He had virtually all of labor. He had big-name endorsements from Darrell Clarke and power players like Dwight Evans and Marian Tasco. He had urbanists, LGBT and feminist groups — you get the idea. Kenney is proud of this. “It’s an unprecedented coalition,” he says. “John Dougherty and Dwight Evans, together at last? Not a bad deal. I think we can get a lot done, putting pieces and people together that aren’t used to working with each other.”

Back to Kenney’s point-guard analogy: “The most beautiful thing to watch is a team that’s in gear with each other, and the mayor has the privilege of being the point guard, of moving those pieces and understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Reporters keep asking Kenney how, with all that labor support, he can stand up to the city’s unions come contract talks. “Why do I have to stand up to these people? Why don’t I make them partners? Why don’t we row the boat together? We’re going to get there a lot faster than we are fighting with each other,” Kenney says. “When you make people the enemy, they become the enemy.”

The Kenney skeptics consider all of this naive at best and a front at worst. They worry that Kenney will hand the keys to City Hall over to Johnny Doc and the municipal unions. Or that Kenney will be mayor in name only, and City Council President Darrell Clarke will call the shots. Or that Kenney will threaten the city’s financial stability, and look the other way as cronyism creeps back into city government. Or that Doc and Clarke will go to war (relations between the two have been tense ever since Clarke killed the deal to sell PGW) and Kenney will be caught in the middle.

Those are valid fears. But the Kenney skeptics underestimate both his will and the power he’ll wield if he succeeds in holding together his massive coalition. His relationships — with labor, with Council, with Doc and Dwight Evans — don’t compromise him, he insists. They empower him. Real strength, Kenney believes, comes from getting things done. In Mayor Jim Kenney’s City Hall, we’re all in this together — at least for now.

Published as “The Anti-Nutter?” in the January 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.