Op-Ed: Kenney Broke His Campaign Promises to Minorities and the Poor

Diaz: The mayor has failed to make his staff diverse or end stop-and-frisk — and his proposed soda tax is regressive.

L to R: Nelson Diaz and Jim Kenney | Photos by Jeff Fusco

L to R: Nelson Diaz and Jim Kenney | Photos by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Nelson Diaz. Diaz is a former Common Pleas judge and former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He ran for mayor in the Democratic primary in 2015.)

Last week, I celebrated the life of the person that brought me from Harlem to Philadelphia: Peter J. Liacouras. Peter, the former president of Temple University and dean of Temple Law School, proved pivotal in my life and I’ve carried his lessons with me. I am out of politics and will never run for anything again, but Peter taught me that you shouldn’t let people lie to you. Confront the lie and let the people know the truth.

Jim Kenney pledged during his campaign to be a new kind of leader who would bridge the racial and ethnic divides in our city and empower low-income and minority communities to succeed and thrive.

Yet the progressive and reformed Jim Kenney on the campaign trail has given way to the old-school politician while in office. (When I ran against him in the mayoral race, I warned that you might be getting the new or the old Kenney.) Mayor Kenney has broken his promise to bring our city together and instead pursued policies that would hurt our poorest communities and further entrench racial and economic inequality.

You can see this most visibly in the people Mayor Kenney has chosen to lead his administration. In a city whose population is over 60 percent people of color, only 22 percent of top-level mayoral appointees are black, only 8 percent are Latino and only 3 percent are Asian, according to a Philadelphia magazine analysis.

During budget hearings, Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart proved unable to answer simple questions posed by Council members about her view on diversity and inclusion. Her hesitation was explained by reports that show that only 22 percent of the executive staff in departments overseen by the Chief Administrative Office are people of color.

These statistics do not reflect the diverse coalition that propelled Mayor Kenney to victory in the polls, and they certainly don’t represent our city, which is rich with ethnic diversity. Despite hiring great leaders like Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nolan Atkinson, the administration overall has treated diversity as an afterthought. This trend threatens to exclude the experiences of many Philadelphia communities from government.

At the same time, Mayor Kenney has broken his most important promise to reform our city’s broken criminal justice system. On the campaign trail, he pledged time and time again to end stop-and-frisk searches. Although civil rights organizations have documented numerous troubling signs that police abuse the practice, once in office Mayor Kenney has claimed that stop-and-frisk (which he prefers to call constitutional “pedestrian stops”) is a necessary element of public policy. He has not experienced the demeaning stops that I have experienced, and he does not understand how destructive this policy is.

In recent interviews, he’s attempted to insult our memory by stating that he never intended to end the fundamentally discriminatory practice completely. Regardless of the title the policy hides behind, stop-and-frisk only works to further the divide between police and the residents they are supposed to keep safe.

In his first budget address, Mayor Kenney demonstrated that not only would his employment practices and public safety policies fail to reflect the promises he made on the campaign trail, his legislative agenda would also show that same lack of understanding. The mayor’s proposed 3-cents-per-ounce tax on all beverages with added sugar is inherently regressive. This adds 96 cents to the cost of a 32-ounce of soda. Those who don’t want to see the price of their groceries dramatically increase will drive to the suburbs, while those with limited access and resources will be forced to stay within their ZIP codes.

It’s common knowledge that people will drive a few extra miles to save even a penny on a gallon of gas, so why wouldn’t residents do the same to save on groceries? This means that less money will come in than budgeted and the poor will pay the damage again. The need for pre-K is something that we all agree on, but this tax forces low-income families to pay for programming that the entire city will be able to enjoy. During the campaign, Kenney promised he would identify revenue sources from the business community, not the poor.

The mayor’s sugary drink tax proposal — which he portrays as the only option to fund necessary programs — is the best example of the type of ideas employed when you don’t have diverse thought leaders included in the discussion. We have the largest population living in poverty in any big U.S. city; this tax proposal is completely insensitive to this group that needs our support the most.

I recognize that many reading this critique will attempt to dismiss my comments and try to shape me as a sore loser, still smarting from the primary election campaign. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As a Philadelphian who has dedicated his life to lifting up poor and minority communities, I’m offended by the regressive practices and policies that the Kenney administration is seeking to impose.

From flawed hiring practices to the failed promise of ending stop-and-frisk to the sugary drink tax, the Kenney administration seems fixated on shutting out minority and low-income Philadelphians. I love Philadelphia, but we all agree its regressive tax system needs to change. Kenney is taking the easy way out by continuing to take from the poor to further invest it in Center City or South Philadelphia in his $4 billion budget. Can’t he find the money for pre-K there?