For a mayor running a tactically low-key campaign for a second term, Jim Kenney spent the closing days of the primary season making official stops all over Philadelphia.
Potholes messing with your commute? Kenney kicked off “paving season” Wednesday in Northwest Philadelphia, a region key to his 2015 election.
Don’t like the city’s sweetened-beverage tax? Kenney spent Friday showing what it pays for during a “Day of Play” with about 1,000 pre-K students and their parents in Fairmount Park.
And on Thursday Kenney made a stop on the “Rebuild” program road tour, touting a $10 million grant for renovations at the Olney Recreation Center.
If the mayoral contest seemed sleepy, the race for City Council at-large has plenty of drama. It drew the biggest field of hopefuls in four decades — one that is younger, more diverse, and more liberal than ever before. With two Democratic at-large members leaving, Council will change.
With time running out Saturday, mayoral and Council candidates alike fired up their door-to-door canvassers, strolled through neighborhood festivals, and courted support at ward political rallies.
Kenney has intentionally limited his interaction with his challengers. Since Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 7-1 ratio, the primary winner is virtually assured of victory in November.
“The mayor is abusing the power of his incumbency to generate support for his campaign,” Williams complained, speaking of the paving, Rebuild, and pre-K events.
“An old cliche,” Butkovitz said. "You only saw the street cleaners out the week before the election. It’s caricaturing.”
Said Harrison Morgan, a spokesperson for the Kenney campaign, “The mayor is doing his job."
Special interests dominate mayoral campaign
“He’s sleepwalking to a win,” Randall Miller, a political historian at St. Joseph’s University, said. “His basic approach is: I’m the incumbent, the incumbent never loses, nobody is watching the race.”
Nearly $2 million has been spent on campaign commercials by three political action committees unaffiliated with any campaign — most of it motivated by the so-called soda tax and backing Kenney.
The American Beverage Association spent $521,196 to criticize Kenney for the sweetened-beverage tax. Philly 2019, funded by local building trades unions, put up $552,601 in support of Kenney. And Forward Together Philadelphia, which received $1 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent $800,000 to push for Kenney’s reelection.
Kenney has weathered criticism about the city’s homicide rate, gentrification displacing longtime residents, real estate taxes, and other issues.
An Inquirer poll last month found a dichotomy: a plurality of voters approves of the job Kenney is doing as mayor while also disapproving of some individual policies.
Kenney spent Saturday on the campaign trail, making a stop at an SEIU 32BJ union rally, sporting a Dick Allen Phillies jersey and cargo shorts. He told the crowd of about 150 that unions put him in office.
“Unionization has helped me become who I am,” he said, promising to work if reelected “to help people get out of poverty and have a dignified working condition and wage.”
Williams roamed the Italian Market Festival in South Philadelphia, handing out campaign fliers and asking voters to visit his website. Angelo Colletti, manning a sidewalk grill steaming with sausage and peppers outside J&J’s, called out good wishes to Williams.
“The big thing is getting rid of the soda tax,” Colletti said. “They’re killing us with the soda tax.”
Butkovitz attended a breakfast rally in Logan’s 49th Ward, telling the crowd of about 50 that Kenney is “taking it for granted.”
Shirley Gregory, Democratic leader of the ward, welcomed Butkovitz wearing an orange shirt emblazoned with the names of Kenney and Councilwoman Cherelle Parker. Gregory later said she worried it was “looking harder and harder” for Kenney to win.
“I believe it’s because the people want the mayor to be a little more forceful,” she said.
Council at-large frenzy
This year, with two Democratic at-large Council members not seeking reelection, hopeful candidates came out in full force. More are running — 28 Democrats and seven Republicans — than any year since 1979.
Having such a diverse and progressive crowd has made it difficult to stand out, said Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant not working for any candidates on the primary ballot this year.
"The field has shifted so far left that your ideas have to be extremely super-duper progressive to be popular," Rashed said.
And in a diverse field that includes first- and second-generation immigrants and LGBTQ candidates, it’s difficult to claim “first” status, especially when there isn’t much disagreement on key issues or positions.
Ultimately, resources could be the “differentiator,” he said, with candidates capable of paying for television commercials standing out in the field.
Endorsements may also make a big difference, as groups and wards will circulate sample ballots on election day to try and sway voters unfamiliar with all the names on the ballot.
Who’s likely to come out on top?
Despite the large number of people running, most political observers think that only about eight or nine of the 28 Democrats stand a real chance at winning.
The three incumbents, Helen Gym, Derek Green, and Allan Domb, are endorsed by the party, are on TV, and have the benefit of incumbency. Party-endorsed Isaiah Thomas, a third-time candidate; and Kathy Gilmore Richardson, a protege of retiring Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, will likely receive the backing of the powerful Northwest coalition and have racked up additional endorsements independently.
Justin DiBerardinis and Eryn Santamoor have both run robust campaigns and raised enough money to go on TV. Erika Almiron has put together an energized grassroots campaign. Ballot position could also boost a candidate like Adrian Rivera Reyes, who, though little known, has the No. 1 ballot spot and several endorsements.
A lower-turnout election will likely favor the party-backed candidates, predicted Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive. In 2017, the first election after President Donald Trump took office, young millennial voters turned out in historic numbers for the district attorney and controller races. Whether they come out again remains to be seen.
Steven Scott Bradley, chairman of the African American Chamber of Commerce, thinks voters are looking past the city primary, to next year’s presidential election. At an event held last week to spark interest in Council races, he predicted low turnout.
“Honestly, I’m discouraged," he said. “It just doesn’t seem to be picking up momentum.”
Three districts to watch
In the 10 Council district races, only five incumbents have challengers. Of those, the three races likely to be the most competitive are in the 2nd, 3rd, and 7th Districts.
In the 2nd District, Lauren Vidas is running against two-term incumbent Councilman Johnson, who has faced several land-deal scandals in the past year. To win, Vidas will need to appeal to voters in the Southwest portions of the district, beyond her base in Graduate Hospital.
In the 3rd District, Jamie Gauthier is hoping to upset longtime West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Gauthier has benefited from the backing of Philly 3.0, a political action committee aligned with developers. Blackwell is not accustomed to having a credible challenger, but the party’s election-day street teams will be out in full force for her.
In North Philadelphia’s 7th District, María Quiñones-Sánchez is hoping to again defeat a party-backed candidate, state Rep. Angel Cruz. Their heated rivalry has been on full display. Four years ago, the 7th District contest was the closest of the district races, with Quiñones-Sánchez winning by fewer than 1,000 votes of 12,000 cast.
Sheriff lays low amid controversy
If Kenney is running a low-key campaign, Sheriff Jewell Williams has made his bid for a third term practically subterranean. Williams, dogged by controversy, has ignored his three Democratic challengers, retired police officer Rochelle Bilal and former deputies Malika Rahman and Larry King.
That trio has done little to hit Williams where he is vulnerable – two sexual-harassment suits settled, a third pending – and did not raise the cash needed to effectively spread a message citywide.