We Want Answers: Jane Slusser

Jim Kenney’s chief of staff on the soda-tax win, the difference between running campaigns and running government, and yelling with the Mayor.

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Right out of college, you worked as an editor at Oxford University Press. How’d you go from publishing to politics? I did publishing for four years, then left to work for Barack Obama’s campaign. I didn’t want to write about history anymore — I wanted to make history. And authors have basically the same egos as politicians.

At 33, you’re the youngest chief of staff in recent Philadelphia history, and one of the few women to have held the position. What’s that like? Our administration has done a lot to make sure there are more women in high-ranking positions, but there are still quite a few meetings, particularly with folks externally, where I’m the only woman or the youngest person in the room. I feel the need to tell people who I am, because sometimes they think I’m probably not the chief of staff.

Kenney’s top appointees were mostly women but not that diverse racially. You played a big role in helping to put together the staff. What happened? We wanted to make sure that people were ready to go on day one. Mayor de Blasio had a very good [diversity hiring] process in New York, but they were still waiting to fill positions in August and September. I think that had we not been as focused on time, certain positions would have stayed open longer, and that would have allowed for more of a diverse pool.

Do you find a lot of people think you don’t understand Philly because you grew up elsewhere? I’m always cognizant of the fact that some people may think that. City government is incredibly complex, and there are sometimes really bizarre reasons why things are the way they are. So it’s helpful to have people from here who know why it’s that way, and it’s also good to have people like me who ask why we can’t change it. It’s a good balance.

Before taking this job, you spent eight years working on campaigns, and you were Kenney’s campaign manager. Do you get frustrated by how slow City Hall is in comparison? I took a long time accepting the Mayor’s offer because I was concerned about that. But the day the soda tax passed, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier, because I realized we could now go do those things that we campaigned to do: Kids are going to get pre-K, and parks are going to look way different in every neighborhood. It’s a sense of accomplishment I didn’t feel on Election Day.

Big Soda spent $5 million to defeat that tax. How did you win anyway? The fact that we tied it to initiatives that were not only incredibly important for Philadelphia but also really deeply shared with Council members was a big piece of it. The only thing that was controversial was the way to pay for it.

I’ve been told the Mayor can be hard to work for: He has a temper, he complains … [laughs] He’s just demanding. He is passionate and he cares a lot, so he wants to see things get done, which I think is a really great motivator. Something I really enjoy about working with him is that he listens to staff. Sometimes you have to push a little harder, and sometimes he’s going to push back. There might be elevated voices. But we have a lot of fun, too.

Has the Mayor ever yelled at you? He’s yelled with me. We have probably yelled at each other.

Over what? Probably scheduling.

Is it hard to live in the shadow of David L. Cohen, Ed Rendell’s famous chief of staff? That’s like being in a boxing club and having people ask if you’re going to be like Muhammad Ali. He was the greatest of all time, so that’s a lot to live up to.