Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s came my evolution from a guy who lived and worked in New York, to a guy who made a long commute from Bucks County, to a Daily News reporter who -- in a mental process that even I don't fully understand -- started rooting one afternoon for Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell to squash my once-beloved Mets like a squirrel that accidentally wanders onto the Schuylkill at 7 a.m..
During that slow evolution, I thought a lot about the ways that New York and Philadelphia were different, and about Philly's untapped potential. (It wasn't just that I drove by run-down diners like the Continental at 2nd and Market and wondered why they weren't yet trendy restaurants, although that was part of it.) I had lived in the 1980s in the New York borough of Queens, which for the most part had been a solid, relatively safe, honest-to-goodness middle-middle class community. And there was no mystery as to why: As old-timers from the "Archie Bunker"-era of Queens left for Long Island or Florida or death (all pretty much the same thing), their homes and their markets were not left to crumble. Instead, they were taken over by an influx of immigrants, from Korea, Colombia, and other nations gaining a toehold in America's largest city.
I pondered why this wasn't happening in Philadelphia -- at least not with the same intensity. It's not going to happen, people told me. The sad truth, according to these naysayers, was that in recent times the so-called City of Brotherly Love just wasn't that welcoming to foreign arrivals. But not everybody felt that way. A city councilman named Jim Kenney -- almost alone, at least among the politically connected, at first -- made the same argument, that Philadelphia neighborhoods would die without an influx of immigrant blood.
"We as a city government must do everything we can to address our population loss, and increasing immigration is a critical step in the right direction," Kenney told an October 2000 Ciity Council hearing that he'd called on the topic. Since then, immigrants have indeed played a key role in the city's (far from completed) comeback, with Philadelphia finally gaining people instead of losing them. Kenney's push was unexpected in more ways than one. A child of the old South Philadelphia, a lifelong Mummer, a one-time protegee of the ultimate urban political boss and future felon Vince Fumo, Kenney was shattering stereotypes. That was impressive. I've long forgotten a lot of things that happened in Philadelphia at the turn of this century. But I remembered this.
In the one week I've been away from the blog, Philadelphia's 2015 mayor's race has been turned upside down, yet again. At just the moment when some liberals were beginning to look at attorney Ken Trujillio, who was constructing a platform that resembled the foundations of Bill de Blasio's surprising win in New York in 2013, he was suddenly gone. Although a couple of lesser-known candidates could surprise to the upside, it looked like the serious choice would be between the discredited 1970s-scented policies of former DA Lynne Abraham and the discredited-right-now policies of state Sen. Tony Williams, the pick of ward bosses and hedge fund billionaires everywhere. Then, Friday, a new lightning bolt.
Jim Kenney is in. Suddenly, people who were ideologically homeless in this election had something to look it. This includes blue-collar workers who've seen unions take a politically pounding over the years. This also may include some millennials who wonder why Abraham talking about drug policy sounds like a bad ABC After-School Special from 1970; it was Kenney, after all, who fought intensely for the recent marijuana decriminalization and made it happen. He's also been pushing for electric cars and other green measures -- and the deeper that he's gotten into his career in city government, the more progressive Kenney's proposals have become. He's given liberal-minded folks the only thing they could ask for at this stage of the mayoral game: A ticket to get inside.
What's more, it will be an interesting ride. A fun ride. But a successful ride?...we'll have to see. In a city that's know for its loose cannons -- anyone remember a guy named Ed Rendell? -- Kenney may be the loosiest, goosiest political cannon we've ever had, thanks in part to the invention of the Twitter machine. Just a couple of weeks ago, he made national news by calling Dallas Cowboys fan and occasional New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "fat assed." You like that one? Turns out he's got a million of 'em. His opponents will surely seek to portray Kenney as something, ahem, less than mayoral in temperment.
But then, I think few would argue that there's been an overall drop in pre-election stature from the last two times the mayor's chair was open -- in 1999 and 2007 -- and the current field. One more candidate and we'll have some dusting off the old jokes about "the seven dwarfs." But at least voters may get to choose between competing visions for Philadelphia's future. And that's a better place than they were four days ago.