Tumar Alexander, who has been serving as Philadelphia’s acting managing director since September, has accepted Mayor Jim Kenney’s offer to permanently take over the top bureaucratic job in city government, the mayor’s office announced Wednesday.
The move brings to a close a period of upheaval in the top level of Kenney’s administration triggered by widespread criticism of the city’s handling of the demonstrations against the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Alexander, a City Hall veteran popular with City Council as well as in the administration, replaces Brian Abernathy, who stepped down after protesters called for his resignation and members of Kenney’s inner circle pressed the mayor to make a change.
Vanessa Garrett Harley, who was previously deputy managing director for public safety and criminal justice, will be Alexander’s top lieutenant as first deputy managing director, the city announced.
Alexander, 45, was initially hesitant to accept Kenney’s offer to take the top job and delayed doing so for months, weighing factors such as the all-consuming nature of the position during a time of crisis and making sure he and Kenney agreed on the structure and responsibilities of the Managing Director’s Office, according to a person with knowledge of the decision-making process.
The managing director is essentially the city’s chief operating officer, overseeing all agencies and reporting to the mayor. The role involves crafting long-term policy as well as being a key decision-maker when the city is responding to emergencies. While the managing director is usually unknown to most Philadelphians, Abernathy became a highly visible figure due to increased public attention brought about by the protests and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as to Kenney’s propensity to let deputies take front-and-center roles.
Alexander, however, prefers to work behind the scenes and has sought assurances from Kenney that the role will be different than it was during Abernathy’s tenure, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with Kenney and Alexander.
The Mayor’s Office also announced changes to the structure of the Managing Director’s Office, including the creation of a new Office of Strategic Initiatives for Public Safety. The yet-unnamed director of the office will report directly to Alexander and oversee the city’s efforts on criminal justice reform, violence prevention, the opioid crisis, and reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people.
The new role comes in response to the summer’s civil unrest against police brutality. Protesters have called for Philadelphia and other cities to “defund the police” and instead invest in community-based antiviolence programs. While Kenney has said he is opposed to reducing the police force at a time of surging gun violence, he is open to using nonpolice interventions to respond to certain emergencies that, for instance, social workers may be better suited to handle.
Additionally, the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Free Library of Philadelphia will now report to the Office of Children and Families, overseen by Deputy Mayor Cynthia Figueroa, instead of Alexander’s Managing Director’s Office, the city announced.
Alexander grew up in the Richard Allen Homes public housing project in North Philadelphia, and attended William Penn High School and Pennsylvania State University, where he majored in political science. He started in Philadelphia politics volunteering for one of former Mayor John F. Street’s campaigns and rose to chief of staff in the Managing Director’s Office during Street’s administration.
Alexander landed that job despite having been involved in a notorious election-season confrontation in 2003 with the landlord of the North Philadelphia campaign office for Street’s Republican challenger, Sam Katz. Alexander and Sharif Street, then the mayor’s son and now a state senator, exchanged words with the landlord just hours before what appeared to be an unlit Molotov cocktail was thrown through a window at the office. No one was held responsible for the vandalism, but Alexander was charged with making terroristic threats, entered a program for first-time offenders, received six months' probation, and was suspended without pay from his city job for a week.
During former Mayor Michael Nutter’s tenure, Alexander served as a deputy mayor and was the administration’s chief liaison to Council. He was Abernathy’s first deputy managing director before replacing him on an acting basis Sept. 4.
Alexander is Kenney’s third managing director, following Mike DiBerardinis, who resigned from city government in January 2019, and Abernathy.