Jim Kenney was moving quickly through the crowded reception at a Chinatown restaurant, stopping to say hello to old friends and then to take a business card from a woman who asked to volunteer for his mayoral campaign.

At the bar, a supporter gave the former six-term city councilman a last-minute tutorial on how to wish everyone a happy Chinese New Year.

"Gong hey fat choy," Kenney repeated twice, feeling out the phrasing. Then he scribbled the words on a blue cocktail napkin.

A campaign staffer arrived, alerting Kenney about a debate earlier at the office about how to pronounce the greeting.

A flash of the famous Kenney temper crossed his face as he contemplated mispronouncing the phrase in public.

"I hate doing stuff if it's messed up," he fumed.

And then it was gone. Kenney's anger dissipated as quickly as it had developed.

The Jim Kenney known for profane Twitter rants about New Jersey Gov. Christie and City Hall diatribes about marijuana decriminalization has been replaced by a mayoral candidate who seems at peace.

"I think it's because I'm actually doing this instead of thinking about it and being frustrated in not doing it," Kenney said this week in his campaign office, two blocks south of the City Hall office he occupied for 23 years. "I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would."

On the campaign trail, Kenney, 56, is upbeat and almost giddy.

He bounded into a Public Citizens for Children and Youth event on Logan Square last week and, seeing one of the nonprofit's executives, showed her a short length of basketball netting from the previous night's SS. Neumann and Goretti Catholic High School girls' basketball team's Catholic League victory.

"The girls cut it down for me," Kenney said.

At Sunday services at Calvary Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, Kenney swayed with the music and clapped his hands in time with the choir.

"I'm Catholic, so we don't have as much fun," Kenney later explained to the pastor, Garth Gittens.

At the Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia, Kenney read Oh, the Places You'll Go! to kindergartners to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Kenney donned a tall red-and-white striped hat and floppy red bow tie for the kids.

"You did?" Kenney asked when one tyke said he once rode in a hot-air balloon like one pictured in the book. "Was it cool?"

Kenney grew up in the Whitman section of South Philadelphia, the son of a Fire Department battalion chief. He delivered newspapers, washed dishes, tended bar, and worked the front desk at a hospital while going to St. Joseph's Preparatory School and La Salle University.

"I didn't have to work to support my parents or pay for bills or anything," he explained. "But they made you work. You had to have a job. You weren't just going to lie on the couch."

His introduction to politics came through two renowned state senators who rose to power in South Philadelphia and then fell in federal prosecutions.

Kenney said an interest in politics prompted him to volunteer for Vincent J. Fumo's 1978 campaign for the state Senate seat vacated by Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani, who had pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and refused to implicate anyone else.

Fumo was convicted after a five-month trial in 2009 of corruption charges that ensnared close friends.

Kenney calls Cianfrani, who died in 2002, a mentor. His relationship with Fumo was the same but soured as the corruption case dragged down others.

Kenney rose under Fumo to chief of staff in the district office. He helped write an amendment to the state constitution to allow for property-tax relief for homeowners in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods.

"It was a wonderful education," Kenney said. "I learned the ward system inside and out."

Kenney's Council career nearly ended twice in the last dozen years, once when he considered not running for reelection in 2003 and again when he was nearly defeated in his 2011 bid for a sixth term for an at-large seat.

Kenney said he could not remember why he nearly gave it up in 2003. Reports from that time showed Mayor John F. Street, who had clashed with Kenney, flirted with endorsing a candidate running against him.

He stuck to it, in part, he said, out of loyalty to then-Council President Anna C. Verna, who wanted his vote to win another term in Council's top spot.

That year's tumult prompted Kenney to take a job developing business prospects with Vitetta Architects & Engineers. Kenney still holds that position, and says the exposure to "the real world of business" gave him a context some public officials lack.

Kenney's opposition in 2011 to the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), angered the municipal unions and left him without their endorsement. That, coupled with a bad ballot position, left Kenney nervous on primary night.

He squeaked into the fifth and final at-large seat by a citywide margin of just 1,754 votes. Kenney credits his narrow victory to strong support in South Philadelphia wards and joint campaign literature he sponsored with at-large Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown in African American neighborhoods.

Much has been made of the racial math in the mayor's race. Kenney says he has decided to reject the calculation of how many white, black, and Latino candidates there are in the primary.

Instead, Kenney talks about his "record in the minority community," calling it as good as that of any other candidate in the race.

"I'm going after everything," he said. "I'm not drawing lines on a map of Philly, saying this is where I'm going to win and this is where I'm not."

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@byChrisBrennan