Mayor Jim Kenney had one more chance to grab the spotlight, and he let it slip away.
Kenney last week delivered his second-to-last budget address, a high-profile speech to City Council that serves as Philadelphia’s version of the State of the Union. With the race to succeed the term-limited mayor expected to take center stage in city politics as soon as budget negotiations wrap up this summer, Thursday’s speech was likely the last moment Kenney had sole discretion to set the agenda for City Hall.
Kenney, for instance, could have proposed a reshaping of a tax code criticized by both the left and the right, or called for a reckoning over corruption in a city that has seen, just this year, two Council members stand before federal juries in unrelated bribery cases.
Instead, he laid out a largely status quo budget proposal in a dry, prerecorded video message played at a virtual Council meeting.
It wasn’t a surprising performance for a mayor who has appeared increasingly unengaged as his second term has progressed. But it is a strange dénouement for an administration that began with significant policy ambitions and is still far from politically isolated.
Usually, mayors become lame ducks because they are so low on political capital by the end of their administration that they struggle to find allies. Kenney’s predecessor Michael A. Nutter, for instance, couldn’t convince a single Council member to introduce high-profile legislation on the administration’s unsuccessful bid to privatize the Philadelphia Gas Works.
Kenney, however, still has potential allies on Council on many policy areas, and his administration continues to influence the legislative process. A recent poll showed that a majority of registered Democrats in the city approve of his performance. But the mayor is not forcing Council to tackle any big issues, making him in effect a lame duck by choice.
“I am concerned that as we are coming out of a global health crisis that has impacted the city of Philadelphia, an economic crisis that has impacted a number of businesses, from small businesses, Black and brown businesses, and others, I’m really not seeing some vision for how we move the city forward,” said Councilmember Derek S. Green, one of the five Council members said to be eyeing a run for mayor next year.
Green said the city is wasting an opportunity by not using the $1.4 billion it is receiving in federal pandemic aid for a major policy proposal. The administration has proposed spreading those funds out over several years rather than immediately injecting them into the city budget or concentrating them in one policy area.
Green contrasted that approach with accomplishments from Kenney’s first term, such as the sweetened beverage tax that has funded more than 10,000 high-quality pre-kindergarten slots and the Rebuild program to improve parks, libraries, and recreation centers.
“Pre-K and Rebuild was a big idea,” Green said. “When the city receives $1.4 billion and we’re coming out of a pandemic, George Floyd, and other challenges, those types of resources can be used for big ideas.”
Kenney declined an interview request. Spokesperson Kevin Lessard rejected the notion that Kenney’s second term has lacked ambition.
“The first budget of the mayor’s second term, as presented in March 2020, was incredibly ambitious but needed to be scrapped mere days later due to the global pandemic, which has impacted every single aspect of City operations,” Lessard said in a statement. “Responding to, and rebuilding from, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, including on gun violence, has been and will continue to be the mayor’s focus.”
The administration’s ambitions were undoubtedly diminished by the overlapping crises of the coronavirus pandemic, the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the record-breaking surge in shootings and homicides, all of which began shortly after the start of Kenney’s second term administration in January 2020.
But one former administration official said they were dismayed to see Kenney fail to use those crises as an opportunity to articulate a vision for the city.
“I really thought both around the civil unrest and COVID, I would have expected more leadership, more interpreting the moment and pointing to the future,” said the former official, who did not want to be identified to preserve relationships. “That’s what I wanted more from the mayor.”
Instead, those events put Kenney on the defensive, with the city having to answer for high-profile mishaps including the teargassing of protesters, the botched vaccine distribution plan with Philly Fighting COVID, and the mishandling of remains of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing. The second term has also seen a string of unplanned departures in the top ranks of the administration, with the managing director, public health commissioner, and commerce director all stepping down amid controversy.
Further complicating matters for Kenney was the conviction of one of his most important political backers, former electricians union leader John J. Dougherty, on federal bribery and honest-services fraud charges in a case that highlighted behind-the-scenes episodes in the early days of Kenney’s tenure as mayor.
As he often has following controversies in his second term, Kenney responded bitterly to questions about his benefactor’s fate, saying he felt bad for Dougherty and his family, and defending Councilmember Bobby Henon, a former electricians union political director who was convicted along with Dougherty.
Asked by reporters what he planned to say to Dougherty after the conviction, Kenney responded, “None of your business. How’s that?”
The administration already appeared to be scaling back its ambitions before the pandemic struck Philadelphia. Despite Lessard’s description of Kenney’s initial pre-pandemic budget proposal, the plan was seen at the time as a notably anodyne proposal for a mayor who had just coasted to reelection amid a growing economy and flush city coffers. Highlights included a new scholarship program for the Community College of Philadelphia, a reiteration of Kenney’s campaign promise four years earlier to bring street sweeping to every neighborhood, and an acceleration of planned business tax cuts.
“Everything is a little bit defined by the pandemic and an environment that no mayor in my lifetime has had to live through and had to deal with,” said George Burrell, a former Council member and mayoral candidate who served in Mayor John F. Street’s administration. ”But even before that, there was not a clear focus of the administration.”
Why has Kenney appeared to shrink from the spotlight over the course of his second term?
Burrell pointed to the lack of people who are close to Kenney who are “outside of the circle of his own influence and political family.” In Kenney’s first term, the top ranks of the administration included people who were outside of Kenney’s South Philadelphia-centered political orbit and had helped him win the 2015 mayoral race, such as his campaign manager-turned-chief of staff Jane Slusser. Now, Kenney’s inner circle is largely made up of people who first started working for Kenney when he was a Council member.
“I think that has constrained a little bit of the potential vision of the administration,” Burrell said.
Slusser, who was Kenney’s chief of staff from 2016 to 2018, said the lack of big new initiatives from the administration does not reflect a lack of engagement, but a necessary continuation of the commitments made during the mayor’s first term. She pointed to the beverage tax-funded programs and the administration’s success in returning the Philadelphia school board back to local authorities after years of Harrisburg control.
“We knew those were things that would take eight years-plus to actually come to fruition, and so the continued investments there are not old news. That’s still important work that’s happening,” Slusser said. “We really focused on big transformational investments that weren’t going to be done overnight, and what they’re doing in the second admin is just a continuation of these big transformational investments.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a recent poll on the mayor’s popularity among city residents. The poll showed that a majority of registered Democrats approved of his performance, not a majority of all Philadelphians.