WASHINGTON -- As he prepares for a new president who has bemoaned the state of big cities -- including Philadelphia -- and promised a new era of law and order, Mayor Kenney came to Washington on Tuesday and said his administration doesn't plan to change its progressive initiatives.
The city will continue on as a sanctuary city, where local law enforcement does not cooperate with immigration authorities' detainer requests, said Kenney, speaking just a short walk from the White House. And he will keep pushing criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population and finding alternatives to jail.
But after he and three other urban mayors discussed how big, largely liberal cities are preparing for the Trump administration, Kenney said mostly he doesn't know what to expect.
"If this were John McCain or Mitt Romney or Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, I would have some idea where they're coming from," Kenney said in an interview after speaking on a panel at the liberal Center for American Progress. "This guy is just -- there's no template for him, so I don't know what he is going to do, how extreme he is going to be or not, or whether the Congress is going to cooperate with the extremity."
Kenney sat on a panel alongside the mayors of Dayton, Ohio, Seattle and Washington, D.C., each outlining their hopes and fears as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office. Each represents the kind of cities where mayors have advanced liberal causes that could come under threat from the new administration.
When it comes to policing, for example, Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions has promised an aggressive law-and-order approach that could contrast with Philadelphia's attempt to use alternatives to jail, to decriminalize some drug offenses and to soften the relationship between police and the communities they patrol.
"I watched that confirmation hearing -- it didn't give me much hope" for national criminal justice reform, Kenney said of Sessions' hearings last week.
But Kenney said Philadelphia would continue to press ahead as long as it is legally allowed.
"We're just going to continue to move forward until a judge tells us to stop," he said on the panel. He added in the interview, "I'd rather ask for forgiveness than permission."
Philadelphia's sanctuary city status could be an obvious flashpoint. Under Kenney's policies the city police do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities' detainer requests unless the person in custody has committed a felony involving violence, or the authorities have a warrant.
The mayor's stand has come under criticism from both Republicans and Democrats -- including the Obama administration -- and Trump and the Republican-led Congress could have the power to withhold millions of dollars in federal funds as punishment. Several Republican lawmakers, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, have pushed that idea, and Trump's hard line on immigration was central to his campaign.
"I'm concerned, but it doesn't mean we're going to walk it back," Kenney said. "That would send a terrible message to our immigrant population that somehow we're being threatened by a Congress or a state legislature that we're going to walk it back and throw it under the bus."
As for the potential loss in federal funds, he said, "if members of Congress want to vote to take money away from police and public safety, they're going to have to answer for it, and they're going to have to explain why."
Critics say cities such as Philadelphia have allowed undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes back onto the street by not cooperating with federal authorities trying to deport them. Supporters of the rules say sanctuary cities help police by giving undocumented immigrants assurances that they can go to law enforcement and share information without fearing deportation.
"The crime argument is just specious," Kenney said. "We are the lowest crime rate in Philadelphia in 40 years, we are a sanctuary city. Obviously that has not created a massive crime problem."