Is Jim Kenney Setting a Low Bar for Philly?

In his first week in office, we learned that the city's new mayor is realistic. Maybe too realistic.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

A few hours before a gunman laid an ambush on a 33-year-old policeman late Thursday night, aggressively thrusting Jim Kenney into his first major crisis, I visited the brand-new mayor in his second-floor office in City Hall.

He was leafing through a stack of papers, his legs propped up on a chair and a pair of glasses resting snugly on his nose. “I’m reading about violent school incidents,” he said calmly. “They’re down 6 percent.”

Then he leapt up and energetically showed me the paintings and photographs plastered on his walls, all of which fit him perfectly. There’s a print of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He says it makes him think of “prison reentry, of bringing people back to life.” There’s an illustration of Pope Francis, a nod to his Catholic upbringing as well as, it turns out, his tight bond with the city’s LGBT community. “That was a gift from Mark Segal,” he says, referring to the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. There’s a framed stamp in commemoration of Irish immigrants. “It just reminds me of where I came from, which is not here,” he says. “So many people in this country forget that’s the case.”

In that moment, Kenney was all those things that his fans say he is: warm, compassionate, a man who cares deeply about oppressed people. But when he looked around him and took it all in, he seemed ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. “It’s a big room,” he said, “a big room.” 

It reminded me of a moment earlier that day, when I had asked Kenney if he was surprised by anything so far. “The reaction of people to you,” he replied. “People wanting to talk to you, take a selfie with you, and interact with you. It’s really amazing, the difference from a Council member to a mayor.”

In his first week in office, Kenney made Philadelphia an immigrant-friendly “sanctuary city” again. He created a cabinet-level position solely dedicated to diversifying the municipal workforce. He vowed to slash the city’s prison population by more than 30 percent. And, when police said that the man who allegedly shot Officer Jesse Hartnett had claimed an allegiance to ISIS, Kenney called for religious tolerance. If you’re a progressive, that’s a lot to like.

But Kenney has also seemed somewhat reluctant at times to think ambitiously for the city, to grasp the great powers that come with being mayor after serving as a City Councilman for 23 years. In his inaugural address, which was just 10 minutes long, Kenney said that the “vision that will guide my administration is that city government should first and foremost deliver efficient, effective services to all Philadelphians.” He admitted that sounded “back-to-basics,” but he argued that it is as “large and as difficult a goal as has ever been announced on this stage.”

Not everyone bought that. The Philadelphia Daily News editorial board asked: “Is vision the right word to describe Kenney’s goals? Surely, making the buses run on time, keeping the streets clean and offering good policing are admirable goals, but they don’t represent the pinnacle of what government should accomplish; it’s the base line.” Even mightily evenhanded WHYY reporter Dave Davies wrote of Inauguration Day, “You didn’t see Kenney outlining a bunch of bold new policy proposals. Instead it was City Council President Darrell Clarke, who spoke before Kenney, who talked about forthcoming initiatives.”

Kenney’s inaugural speech couldn’t have been more different than the one delivered by his predecessor. In 2008, Mayor Michael Nutter was a force of nature when he took the stage at the opulent Academy of Music. He promised a “new way,” and called on Philadelphians to make “a shared commitment to returning this city to be one of the greatest cities in the United States of America.” When Nutter’s second term ended, many residents were no doubt disappointed that he didn’t achieve all his lofty goals. But in shooting high, Nutter also left the city much safer, bigger, greener and more cosmopolitan.

Of course, it’s possible to make far too much of Kenney’s inaugural address. Speeches tell us nothing about, say, whether a mayor can twist legislators’ arms or negotiate labor contracts. But the thing is, this appears to go beyond a mere speech.

“Jim has a very different style, and it’s mine too, which is under-promise, over-deliver,” says Jane Slusser, Kenney’s chief-of staff. “You don’t want to raise people’s expectations up and then not be able to deliver.”

What if, by setting low expectations, Kenney holds the city back?

I can see Kenney’s philosophy playing out in a few ways. One argument is that Kenney won’t wield the immense power that comes with being a mayor. It can be easy to forget, after seeing Nutter forfeit more and more political clout to Clarke over the past four years, but Philadelphia’s city charter actually bestows the mayor with real influence, which far outweighs City Council’s. In the hope of having a more productive relationship with Council than Nutter did, though, Kenney may end up letting Clarke upstage him, just like he did on Inauguration Day. And then the city might be co-run, essentially, by Kenney and a man who has no term limits and who received only 20,000 votes in the last election.

Slusser admits that Kenney “does not like to take the spotlight.” She points to something that Kenney said when he won in a historic landslide in last year’s primary election: “He goes, ‘Well, I didn’t want to win by that much. That’s embarrassing.'” Most other politicians would die to have such a huge mandate, and if Kenney doesn’t take advantage of it, the broad coalition of African Americans and progressives and LGBT members who put him into office will surely be disappointed.

But you could also argue it’s a good thing that Kenney doesn’t bask in the spotlight. Instead of taking a victory lap this summer after winning the primary election, his campaign hunkered down and started assembling the new Kenney administration. (Kenney’s bet that he would win the general election against the GOP’s Melissa Murray Bailey was a completely safe one, since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in Philadelphia.) By the time Kenney was sworn in Monday, he had already made dozens of appointments, enabling him to get right to the work. Nutter, in comparison, was still appointing key department heads and cabinet members well into 2008.

Kenney’s fans also say he’ll be happy to share credit with Council members, work behind closed doors to craft deals, and, yes, stroke their egos if need be. The theory goes that Nutter didn’t achieve some of his legislative priorities, such as the sale of Philadelphia Gas Works, because he was unable or unwilling to play nice with Council. As an example, Nutter critics often cite the time he tried to force Council members to give up one of their perks — taxpayer-funded cars — by calling them out during his 2009 budget address.

The lesson that Kenney took from that episode is that Nutter should have cajoled Council members behind the scenes instead of shaming them at a highly publicized event. Interestingly, one of the things Kenney did during his first week in office is take away another perk from local pols: He banned cars from the north apron of City Hall, where some Council members used to park. But he didn’t announce it publicly. Instead, Slusser says, “He spoke with everybody.” One thing that may have helped? “The fear of Jim Kenney rage is a good thing sometimes.”

Clearing automobiles from the doorstep of City Hall is small-ball, of course, but Kenney will have plenty of other opportunities to test out his ego-stroking skills when the stakes are higher. In fact, he might already be putting them to use.

One of the big proposals that Clarke talked about on Inauguration Day was criminal justice reform. He didn’t provide details, but he promised that the changes would be “significant.” Kenney has been the loudest opponent of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in city government for a few years now. He vowed to give ex-cons a second chance on the mayoral campaign trail, and as a Councilman, he pushed through a bill that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Slusser insists that Clarke’s announcement about criminal justice reform simply shows that the two men “happen to be aligned on a lot of various issues.”

Is it that simple, though? As she told me earlier in our conversation while explaining Kenney’s governing approach, “When you get out there and make other people think that things are their idea, and you show that you’re really ready to give credit to others, you still get that thing done, and you usually get it done much more quickly because you have other people on board who think that they came up with it.”

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