The origins of the United States are grounded in the prodigy of political debate. It has been a core tenet of our country’s democratic principles since 1776. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, our country’s two founding documents, are the result of sophisticated debate that occurred in this very city. Yet, after his victory in the Democrat mayoral primary last Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney has stated he will likely forego this principle of our democracy and not debate his Republican challenger ahead of the November election. This would be a great disservice to the citizens of Philadelphia.
In a masterful speech given at Independence Hall on September 17, 1787, the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin famously said, “Most men … think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.” Kenney’s refusal to debate echoes this type of hubris. Furthermore, in a city where his approval rating sits beneath 50%, a homicide rate that has climbed during his term, and a poverty rate that, while it has plateaued during his term, remains among the highest in the country, Kenney owes it to Philadelphians to debate his opponent.
Kenney’s reasoning behind his unwillingness to debate his Republican challenger, Billy Ciancaglini, is based on a claim that Democrats launch too casually upon Republicans: white supremacy. “It’s hard when the person associates themselves with white supremacists and neo-Nazis to give that person a platform, so probably not,” Kenney said of debating Ciancaglini. This claim is solely based on unnamed sources speaking to a small website known as Unicorn Riot, where they claimed to be white supremacists who met with the Republican challenger.
These claims, which Ciancaglini denies, haven’t been verified elsewhere and run counter to his claimed history of pro bono work as a lawyer with black and Latino clients. If Kenney is serious about probing his opponent’s alleged prejudice, he should use his bully pulpit to challenge Ciancaglini in a public forum where Philadelphians can judge for themselves.
Granted, Kenney has little to gain politically from any debate. Democrats in Philadelphia enjoy an overwhelming edge in registration. The city has not had a Republican mayor since the Truman presidential administration. Kenney had over 10 times as many votes in the primary compared to Ciancaglini. Politically, there is little incentive for him to participate. Yet, given all the challenges Philadelphians face, as an incumbent mayor, he should not be suppressing political opposition.
Ironically, as Kenney champions himself as the bastion of equality, he has engaged in racial stereotyping himself. In a Philadelphia Magazine profile published this January, Kenney said he is confronted angrily on the street by white men, whom he tells: “You’re white, you got a house, a house at the Shore, you got two cars, wife is working, nobody is shooting your kids, what are you so angry about? You should be the happiest guy in the world." However, Kenney’s stereotyping shows a mayor out of touch with reality.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey Five-Year Estimate released in December 2018 reveals that white poverty throughout Philadelphia drastically increased between 2013 and 2017. The survey showed that “while poverty among minority groups stalled or decreased, poverty among white people in Philadelphia increased from 14.8 percent to 19.4 percent between 2016 and 2017," with rates jumping in 22 majority-white neighborhoods. Imagine being a resident in any of these neighborhoods and reading the mayor’s comments. To misrepresent an ethnic group’s economic concerns solely based on the color of their skin is the textbook definition of prejudice, the same thing Kenney stated he opposed.
Kenney’s attack on one of our democracy’s most relished traditions should not be taken lightly. Philadelphia’s ranking as the country’s “poorest big city,” homicides, economic stagnation, the opioid epidemic, and schools are grave concerns that impact all Philadelphians. Refusal to engage in discourse with political opponents is a right reserved for tyrants, not mayors of American cities. And, especially not the mayor of the city that is our country’s cradle of liberty.