Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is considering a run for Pennsylvania governor in 2022, according to two people with direct knowledge of his thinking.
A statewide run by Kenney, who is widely expected on Tuesday to coast to a second term as mayor, would ripple across city and state politics, potentially accelerating the race to succeed him in City Hall.
If he does seek the governor’s seat, Kenney would attempt to stake out the left flank in the Democratic primary, hoping to re-create on a statewide level the coalition of unions and progressive groups that elevated him to the mayor’s office, one of the people with knowledge of his thinking said.
A spokesperson for Kenney neither confirmed nor denied that Kenney is considering a gubernatorial run. Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, Kenney would have to resign as mayor to begin campaigning for another office.
“While the mayor is flattered that people are urging him to run for governor, he is focused on running the city and getting re-elected next Tuesday," Kenney spokesperson Marty O’Rourke said in a statement. "If successful in Tuesday’s election, he will continue his fight to eradicate poverty while instituting serious criminal justice reforms, confronting the opioid crisis, and improving the quality of our children’s education — and will — as time permits — do all he can to defeat Donald Trump and help elect Elizabeth Warren president of the United States.”
Both of the people who spoke to The Inquirer said Kenney personally told them that he’s thinking about running to replace Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is in his second term and cannot run for a third. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Kenney did not give them permission to talk about his plans.
One said Kenney was likely to run and was optimistic about his chances, arguing that the mayor would benefit from the leftward trend in recent Democratic primaries.
“There will be no other candidate in the race that has his experience," this person said. “He would be a serious, serious candidate.”
The other person who has spoken to Kenney was skeptical that he will ultimately pull the trigger on a statewide campaign. This person planned to observe how aggressive Kenney is at December’s Pennsylvania Society weekend, the annual New York City gathering of Pennsylvania political insiders.
“He’s definitely entertaining the idea right now,” the second person said. “I’ll believe it when I see it ... if he starts going to state [Democratic Party] committee and going to a bunch of Pennsylvania Society events.”
Candidates eyeing the governor’s race need to begin courting donors long before the primary. Based on the last two Pennsylvania gubernatorial elections, a winning campaign will likely need to raise at least $20 million.
Following an ambitious first term in which he pushed for the enactment of a sweetened beverage tax and restored local control of Philadelphia schools, Kenney has a thin agenda for his second term. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1, he is expected to win easily against Republican Billy Ciancaglini. His recent endorsement of Warren was seen as a sign that he wants to remain in the good graces of progressives.
To win, Kenney would likely need the backing of the unions that supported his 2015 mayoral run, especially the politically powerful Electricians Local 98. Such support could prove problematic in a statewide race, however, following the federal indictments of the union’s leader, John J. Dougherty, and other union officials, who have pleaded not guilty.
Kenney would also need to maintain support from the liberal groups that have been gaining political clout across the state in recent years by tapping into opposition to Trump. The campaign manager for Kenney’s reelection campaign, Brandon Evans, is a former state director for the Working Families Party, the progressive group aiming to win seats on City Council in Tuesday’s election.
If Kenney resigned to run, the City Council president would become mayor. If opponents of current Council President Darrell L. Clarke were concerned about Kenney’s resigning before his term ends, they could challenge Clarke when Council holds its leadership elections in January.
A Kenney run would also change the political calculus for the members of Council who were previously said to be considering running for mayor when Kenney’s term ends in 2023. In the event of a contested leadership race, for instance, those members might want to prevent potential rivals from becoming Council president, allowing them to run for mayor in 2023 as a partial-term incumbent.
Alternatively, a faction of members could strike a deal that would position one to become mayor by way of the Council president’s office, while another readies a run for president once the other assumes the top job.
Ed Rendell, the last Philadelphia mayor to ascend to the governorship, said Kenney could have a difficult time winning the primary because two other Democrats widely seen as eyeing a run — state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Treasurer Joe Torsella — are also from Southeastern Pennsylvania.
“If all three were to run, it would make it easier from someone from [western Pennsylvania] to get elected," Rendell said, who said he hadn’t spoken with Kenney about the 2022 race. “Jim’s probably the least known across the state of the three of them.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat from outside Pittsburgh, is seen as more interested in running against Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey than in seeking to become governor.
Rendell said he wouldn’t discourage Kenney from running if he wants to.
“People said to me that no Philadelphian could ever get elected governor," Rendell said. “I didn’t listen to them, and I won. It’ll be an uphill battle for him, but so was getting elected mayor."