Jim Kenney’s War on Cool

No more Roots on July 4th, no more startup vibe in City Hall — what gives, Mayor?

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

In retrospect, the rise of Jim Kenney had a certain #FeelTheBern quality to it. The giddy millennials. The underdog element. The AARP-eligible white guy with whitish hair who somehow was cool. Like, shockingly cool. Clinking-beer-glasses-with-young-people-at-Johnny-Brenda’s cool. Kenney blended working-class populism with a distinctly 21st-century relatable-ness: all that reckless tweeting (example: calling Chris Christie “fat assed” for supporting the Cowboys), all that emoting on the floor of City Council (example: “If you’re a homophobe or a racist and you’re from the suburbs or outside the city, we really don’t want you to come here”). His policies were cool, too: Kenney got the LGBT equality bill passed; he decriminalized marijuana; he was pro-immigrant. And in what surely was a first in Philly mayoral history, he suggested that we borrow fresh ideas from the far-flung metropolis of Gdańsk, Poland.

Candidate Kenney was authentically Philly, but worldly and forward-thinking at the same time. In December, I saw him stand in front of a crowd of urbanists and transit wonks — which are cool things to be now, believe it or not — and compare himself to Paul of Tarsus when it comes to bikes and public space. That is, he went from biking skeptic to devout convert. “It’s what young folks want,” he said, before a line that got rousing applause: “Our sidewalks, our streets, need to be shared equally.” Young urbanists were enthralled.

But once Kenney had the race won, signs quickly emerged that some of his campaign luster was fading. His victory speech after he won the general election was brief and boring, and he ditched his own party seconds after he delivered it. His inauguration fete in January was pitched as a “block party,” in contrast to the frilly Academy of Music black-tie affairs of some of his predecessors. That was cool, I guess, except that it was held inside the Convention Center, and a bunch of (typically fun) mascots filled the stage like uncaged hype men while the crowd chanted words like “community” in unison.

The cool that Candidate Kenney exuded never was glitzy. Now that he’s in office, Kenney is virtually oozing disdain for the trappings of his office. “I don’t like the whole ‘Mayor’ thing,” he tells me, referring to citizens calling him that — or “Your Honor” — rather than “Jim.” He’s been trying to raffle off his box seats at Citizens Bank Park to raise money for the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia. His security detail isn’t allowed to touch his bags. He talks about how he misses riding the subway to City Hall.

All of which might come across as folksy, if the new mayor weren’t also eviscerating an array of initiatives — several of them pet projects of former mayor Michael Nutter — designed to telegraph Philly’s au courant status to the rest of the world. In Mayor Kenney’s Philadelphia, the Roots will no longer be playing the Parkway on July 4th; he’s instead going old-school, with an homage to Gamble and Huff. Kenney also held the exit door open for the Forbes Under 30 Summit, which Nutter breathlessly touted as “arguably the most influential gathering of millennials in the world.” More recently, Kenney has proposed halving city funding for the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do fun things,” Kenney says in a brief interview in his office in late April. “But I think the brand should also be that we have a city that works, that is safe, that is educated, that believes that every soul who lives in this city has an equal shot at making it in life. I want young couples to want to stay in the city when they have kids.”

Those priorities are hard to argue with. But are the Roots and expanded pre-K mutually exclusive? For big cities, buzz matters: Of the 50 largest cities in the nation, the three fastest-growing are Austin, Denver and Seattle — not coincidentally, places with very contemporary cultural cachet. Philadelphia came in at 43, between El Paso and Albuquerque.

Mayor Nutter fretted — some might say he obsessed — over Philly’s image deficit. He wanted the city to be considered sophisticated, cosmopolitan, cool. He lavished attention on the local tech scene. He lobbied hard for the Pope’s visit, Philadelphia’s new World Heritage City designation and the DNC. He evangelized for Philadelphia on trips to Brazil, Israel, Germany, China, Mexico and Italy — and was bashed for it by City Council members, chief among them Jim Kenney.

It was all just a little too foofoo for Kenney.

Kenney isn’t oblivious to the city’s “brand.” He’s building bike lanes, and he has a new Snapchat account, and he’s organizing a cool citywide soccer tournament to celebrate Philly’s cultural diversity. It’s not that he thinks fun and fundamentals are at odds. “You can do it all,” he says. Maybe so, but that’s not the message Kenney’s sending so far. He’s overcorrecting for Nutter’s showmanship, and it could bite the city in the ass.

THERE’S NO CLEARER example of Kenney’s retrograde tendencies than his moves to deemphasize the role of innovation in city government. Prior to Mayor Nutter, the city’s IT department was little more than a help desk and a somewhat hapless squad of computer technicians. On Nutter’s watch, it was reorganized into the Office of Innovation and Technology, and in addition to improving service delivery to city departments, it evolved into something resembling a city-funded startup that doubled as a rallying point for Philadelphia’s budding tech scene. The office introduced job titles we don’t usually associate with municipal government: a content designer, a user experience strategist, a director of civic technology. Some of these key positions were filled by techies from the private sector. And the team explored first-of-their-kind projects like Alpha.Phila.Gov, a forward-thinking overhaul of the city’s website designed to transform how citizens interact with their government online. The office won award after award for its work and became a national leader in municipal innovation.

None of that would have happened had a prototypical bureaucrat been installed to head up OIT. Nutter made a point to conduct a national search, landing on Adel Ebeid, formerly the top IT chief for the state of New Jersey. Ebeid’s résumé was conventional, but his approach wasn’t. He tried to bring a hyper-agile, private-sector slant to OIT — and it got noticed. “Philadelphia had the envy of the nation,” says Mark Headd, who was appointed the first chief data officer in Philly (second in the nation) in 2012. “Other cities are now emulating what Philadelphia is doing.”

And yet the Kenney administration went in another direction — not only with Ebeid, who wasn’t extended a renewal offer, but with all its hiring. Since January, City Hall has grown even more parochial. Nearly all of Kenney’s appointees are longtime Philadelphians, and most have bountiful government experience, including Ebeid’s replacement, Charlie Brennan.

The grumbling over Brennan started quickly. About six weeks after he was hired, I spoke with a member of the Philly startup scene who rattled off his complaints in staccato exasperation. “Charlie. Former cop. Doesn’t have a Twitter account,” read my notes. When I asked around, there seemed to be collective bewilderment at the hire, and Brennan’s very first move signaled that playtime for the cool kids was in jeopardy: He changed his title from “chief innovation officer” to “chief information officer,” suggesting that he saw himself more as a mechanic than an innovator.

Three high-profile OIT hires walked out the door in Kenney’s first 100 days in office. These weren’t political workers — the sort who come and go whenever an administration changes hands. They were highly talented tech people who’d jumped at the chance to work in Ebeid’s nascent creative community.

But under the new regime, employees have been suspended for working remotely (Ebeid allowed it). The Alpha team has been waylaid with more rudimentary tasks, and the overall vibe has turned “toxic,” according to a number of employees I spoke to. Another said it felt like 1984 — not just because of the oversight and mistrust, but also due to the throwback nature of the work. “You have good people who feel they’re giving their all to a particular project and conversing all the time over Slack and email and working into the night and really pushing,” says Gabriel Farrell, one of the recently departed. “Then, conversely, you have people wondering where someone is because they’re not back from lunch at 1:30.”

It’s not that Brennan has completely deep-sixed Alpha. “Nothing has stopped. All the programs that were there are still there,” he assures me. But his real passion seems to be for important but less-than-inspirational hardware upgrades.

At the City Council budget hearings in April, when Council President Darrell Clarke asked about OIT’s inability to fill vacant positions, Brennan replied that he can’t compete with the nap rooms, flex hours, free food and massages of the private sector. The implication, of course, was that the government will always play second fiddle to the ping-pong culture of private tech firms.

“I don’t buy that. If the city can figure out how to pay for DROP retirements, it can figure out how to retain tech talent,” Mark Headd chimed in on Twitter. (Brennan, who spent three decades in the police department, took a lump-sum retirement payment of $337,695 through the DROP program in 2006. His salary in this new gig is $165,000.) “Not even worth indulging. We HAD the staff. It’s not about recruiting, don’t buy the spin,” tweeted one current member of Brennan’s team.

But Kenney seems to think getting good people in IT, however desirable, isn’t a realistic option for city government. “I don’t mean to denigrate the work of people in government, but if you’re looking for the top-notch IT people, the private sector sucks them up immediately and you can’t pay them,” Kenney said at a local tech conference in December. The city has more than 30 job openings in OIT, but there’s been minimal interest from private-sector candidates, says Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn. “Unfortunately, there were just a few people who came from [the] private sector to work in OIT under Mayor Nutter,” he adds. There were at least eight private-sector workers recruited by OIT under Nutter’s watch, which probably does qualify as a “few” in a 300-plus-employee department. These sorts of subtle digs at Nutter are common in the new administration. Even Kenney’s lone bold tech-related move — releasing data on the salaries of city employees — was a quiet F-U to Nutter, who had resisted making that particular data available despite his carefully cultivated rep as the paterfamilias of Open Data.

All of it comes across as part of a deliberate attempt to dispel Nutter’s juju from City Hall. Kenney is, of course, entitled to make big changes — indeed, the coalition that elected him wants change. But there were some things the Nutter administration did well, and rolling back so much of what the last guy did can appear gratuitous, if not regressive.

What Kenney and Brennan seem to have overlooked is that OIT’s impact extended well beyond the cubicles of the techies who work there. OIT symbolized City Hall’s commitment to Philly’s small but growing tech scene. That was by design: “Putting a greater value on innovation and technology in government would have a ripple effect with the local startup community,” says Ebeid. Nutter’s managing director, Richard Negrin, had a presence at Indy Hall and Philly Tech Week, hosted hackathons, and generally helped break down the divide between public and private tech. “We wanted to make working for the city cool again.” says Negrin.

LAST YEAR, when Kenney was running for mayor, it barely came up that he had, in the not-so-distant past, threatened to sue MySpace and Facebook over a flash-mob controversy. Or that he once was so clueless about Twitter that he paid a contractor $28,000 in public money to manage his Twitter feed. Or that he proposed dramatically higher fines for cyclists who violate traffic laws, and supported cracking down on bicyclists with a mandatory registration program. Cool he was not. But that was supposedly old Kenney, the sometimes-curmudgeonly ex-Fumocrat and Mummer, who once masqueraded as a raisin.

The new Kenney was hip and tech-savvy and loved Gdańsk — and while he was different from Nutter in plenty of ways, he seemed like a mayor who’d pay attention to the city’s image, like a guy who understood that Philly’s budding reputation as a hot city was an asset, not a vice.

Kenney swears that’s still the case, hinting at big-time events in the pipeline. “We’re actually going after a couple of things that we’ve never done before that have a national and international scale,” he says.

Whatever’s in store, I smell Mummers. And mascots. Lots of them.

Published as “Kenney’s War on Cool” in Philadelphia magazine.