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A message to Philly Mayor Jim Kenney: Rattle more sabers in your second term | Mike Newall

I’m hoping our grumpy mayor will throw political caution to the winds and start ticking more people off — for the right reasons.

Mayor Jim Kenney votes on Election Day at the Painted Bride Theater.
Mayor Jim Kenney votes on Election Day at the Painted Bride Theater.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

By the time you read this, Mayor Jim Kenney will have grimaced his way to a second term in City Hall, having run the Kenney-est campaign possible: Saying little, smiling less, and seemingly suffering mightily.

As my colleague Chris Brennan pointed out, this race — which has been practically portended in the stars over City Hall for the last four years — failed to draw out our perpetually long-faced mayor’s competitive fire.

Or, you know, a clearly articulated plan for the next four years.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have one. Or that he hasn’t demonstrated the vim required of a big-city mayor in the age of Trump. I’m just saying he hasn’t gotten around to telling us much about his second term.

Mostly, I’m hoping our grumpy mayor will throw political caution to the wind and start ticking more people off — for the right reasons. (This is, of course, dependent on whether he up and runs for governor on us.)

He already got a good start in his first term. The soda tax sent the industry up the wall. Holding firm on sanctuary cities sent the Trump administration up its respective, nonexistent wall. But this term, he’s got to double down.

Much of the criticism leveled at our mayor from the right has focused on Kenney’s merely signaling support for liberal causes. Much of the ire on the left is a belief that he hasn’t gone far enough — supporting a supervised injection site with little of the enthusiasm he’s shown on other issues, for example. Or a street-sweeping program that — instead of asking people to move their cars — uses gas-guzzling leafblowers to skirt around cars, in the process hurling decades of dust, and worse, into neighbors’ and workers’ faces.

Now he’s on the hook for picking a new police commissioner as homicides spike — and dealing with a school district under local control and facing a mounting controversy over the condition of its asbestos-riddled buildings.

So again, with his second term in hand, Kenney needs to risk making more people angry. Let’s get the easy ones of out of the way first. Make South Philadelphians — and I say this as a South Philadelphian — Move. The. Damn. Cars.

“They’re avoiding conflict over parking,” said John Geeting, director of engagement at the political advocacy group Philadelphia 3.0. “Everything is set up over that goal. But we can have a different goal.” Namely, behaving like every other city with a street-sweeping program.

Kenney needs to appoint a police commissioner who can remind us that just a few years ago, former Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey was imagining a Philadelphia with fewer than 200 murders — and that sounded attainable. That’s a transformative goal that would change the city’s entire reality. It feels so far away these days. This year already, we’re at 298 murders.

There’s a chance now for Kenney to appoint a new commissioner — an outsider if need be — who can shake up a stagnated department. As Temple criminal justice professor Jerry Ratcliffe told me, the next commissioner needs to put in place a policing and reform strategy that doesn’t get bogged down in bureaucracy — that actually stretches from the Roundhouse to the street corners.

It is hard to criticize Kenney on the steps he has taken to improve the city. Rebuild has the potential to be a city-changing initiative. Universal pre-K and community schools could define his legacy, if fully implemented, and finally start to pull some of our most beleaguered neighborhoods out of poverty. Yeah, I want him to bang the drum on supervised injection sites, but before he took office, there was barely a murmur from city higher-ups on the issue.

That’s the contradiction of Kenney. He’s great at getting everyone a little bit angry.

That’s his kind of politics — a constant give-and-take, said Lauren Hitt, his former spokesperson, who now works in national politics. It’s especially expected of someone who spent decades navigating America’s pettiest legislative body, Philadelphia City Council.

He’s got no problem ticking people off, Hitt said, “but he also cares about efficacy. For him to get to the point of saber-rattling, he has to feel like he’s exhausted every option.”

But that’s the luxury of a second term. You can afford to get the sabers out.