Insider: All Eyes on You, Mayor Kenney
(Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)
At 10 a.m. today, Jim Kenney will be sworn in as Philadelphia’s 99th mayor. Unlike the 2008 inauguration of Michael Nutter, which included citizens waiting in line for hours and a festive party at the Navy Yard, today’s events will be subdued and businesslike. It’s not that there isn’t much to celebrate — there’s just a lot of work to be done.
The 2015 mayoral campaign wasn’t about running against Nutter so much as it was about who could continue to do good for the city. There are key differences between Kenney and Nutter, though: For one thing, Kenney has acknowledged that he prefers a more traditional, strong-mayor form of government, as is laid out in the city charter.
Most, if not all, of Kenney’s key cabinet positions have been named: managing director, chief of staff, solicitor, treasurer, city representative, streets chief, and Licenses & Inspections head. There’s continuity at two extremely important positions — the police department and school district. Police Commissioner Richard Ross was a longtime deputy of our previous (and, by most accounts, successful) police chief. Superintendent William Hite will be on board through at least 2022, and provided he’s given the resources to get the job done, I fully expect to see continued progress there.
It doesn’t appear that there’s going to be a massive rollback of policies like occurred during the Street-to-Nutter transition. That’s good news, because undoing policies takes time, and time right now is at a premium. Kenney’s priorities — universal pre-K, decreasing poverty and creating better processes for reengaging returning citizens — are in dire need of immediate solutions. The appointments to newly-created positions, including the chief diversity and inclusion officer, a director of universal pre-K, and a deputy mayor for labor, signal the new administration’s cabinet-level-down approach to addressing some of the city’s more systemic challenges.
The million-dollar question, of course, is what does this all mean? How does this affect the life of the average Philadelphian, who’s faced with less-than-desirable school choices, disproportionately high taxes, and wages that are often inadequate to sustain a family?
The answer is that, for a while, we won’t know. We’re fortunate that Nutter left the city in a much better condition than the one he inherited. In 2008, then newly-elected Mayor Nutter set out on a path of optimism, but six months into his term, the country was hit with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It’s hard to plan strategically for the future when you’re fighting for economic survival and solvency.
Kenney and his team have a significant opportunity to improve upon some of the growth of the economic policies of the last administration, while also bettering the businesses and commercial corridors of our neighborhoods. Balance from the start on this approach is going to be extremely important. The last three mayors have, in order, focused on the city’s downtown, the neighborhoods, and then the downtown again, as if both could not be done at the same time. Oftentimes, growth in one area was pursued at the detriment to the other.
We all want results yesterday, and governing in 2016 is going to be a lot different than just eight years ago. In an unusual move, a coalition of progressive groups held a rally outside of City Hall a week ago, with a list of eight policies they want see implemented in Kenney’s first 99 days.
The increasing ubiquitousness of social media, as well as the extra attention paid to the policies of policing, are going to continue to be unique challenges. We’re also living in a world that demands results right now, which doesn’t lend itself well to the politics necessary for the give-and-take required to run a city. Neither Philadelphia’s 26 percent poverty rate nor its 6.5 percent unemployment rate happened overnight, though, and they won’t be fixed overnight, either. The same goes for the city’s underfunded public schools. It was, in part, a gradual de-prioritization of public education that got us where we are today. To make matters worse, we’re six months overdue on a state budget, and hundreds of thousands of people across the state are suffering because of the impasse. That’s not on the mayor, either.
What the mayor can do — and what we’re counting on him to do — is set the tone and point the direction of where we need to go as a city. The mayor will be the chief vision setter and also the chief cheerleader. There’s a lot of optimism, but it doesn’t completely smooth over the anxiety about how to tackle the enormity of the problems our city faces. It reminds me of an old proverb: How do you eat an elephant? The simplest answer is: one bite at a time.
Mr. Mayor, your clock officially began today. All eyes on you now.