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Kenney has a great week; Williams, Abraham not so much

If successful campaigns are built on hard work, chance, and the missteps of one's opponents, then Jim Kenney hit the trifecta last week.

At a campaign event, candidates (from left) Lynne M. Abraham, Anthony H. Williams and Jim Kenney field questions. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
At a campaign event, candidates (from left) Lynne M. Abraham, Anthony H. Williams and Jim Kenney field questions. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)Read more

If successful campaigns are built on hard work, chance, and the missteps of one's opponents, then Jim Kenney hit the trifecta last week.

Over a three-day stretch, the Democratic mayoral candidate garnered the blessing of a coalition of prominent African American leaders, witnessed Lynne M. Abraham fall victim to an untimely televised swoon, and took advantage of State Sen. Anthony H. Williams being fined for campaign-finance violations.

"It is hard to think how the week could have gone better for Kenney," said Dan Fee, president of the Echo Group, a Philadelphia political consulting firm. "If you think of what most people want in a mayor - someone with broad support, someone who is ethical, and someone who is going to be a vigorous presence - Jimmy was defined by other people's actions. That is how you want a campaign to work."

That said, the May 19 primary is still more than a month away and the campaign is far from over for the field, which also includes T. Milton Street, Nelson Diaz, and Doug Oliver.

"These are paper cuts at the moment, not enough to make you bleed to death," said former mayoral candidate Sam Katz, when asked about the week's impact on Williams, long the presumed favorite.

More worrisome, Katz said, was what the endorsements and the ethics violations said about Williams' campaign.

"I see a campaign that is not running on all cylinders," Katz said. "These are the kinds of things a good campaign does not let happen."

Williams has held front-runner status chiefly because he is the most prominent African American candidate in a field that includes multiple white opponents.

With 52 percent of city voters identifying themselves as black, Williams could expect to benefit from historic trends showing voters largely cast ballots along racial lines.

A white challenger such as Kenney, then, faces a hurdle to be seen as a viable choice for African Americans when there is a serious black alternative.

On Monday, Kenney received a major boost when State Rep. Dwight Evans and Councilwoman Marian Tasco, two well-known and respected African American leaders, led a group of black elected officials from Northwest Philadelphia in endorsing him.

Their endorsement of Kenney is unprecedented in recent Philadelphia mayoral elections. Up until now, it would have been unthinkable for such a prominent collection of black leaders to break ranks against a major African American mayoral candidate.

"These are endorsements that actually mean something," said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University history professor and keen observer of Philadelphia politics.

Fee called the endorsements "validators."

"They validate you for voters who may not know you well," he said. "They help validate Jim in another part of the city."

'The one'

On Friday, Forward Philadelphia, an independent group supporting Kenney, launched a television ad featuring photos of Evans, Tasco, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, and State Reps. Cherelle L. Parker and Stephen Kinsey. The audio message: "Jim Kenney's the one they trust."

The impact of the endorsements was amplified Tuesday with Abraham's unfortunate fainting spell at the start of the first televised mayoral debate.

As Kenney's chief rival for the 35 percent of the electorate that identifies itself as white, Abraham, 74, was looking for a strong debate to blunt any doubts about her campaign's viability or her age.

Feisty or fading?

Viewers, instead, were left with the image of her collapsed beneath her lectern. She rebounded quickly the next day in her typically feisty fashion, but the damage may have been done, if not with voters, then with contributors whose funding is critical.

With Kenney and Williams running expensive ad campaigns, Abraham faces irrelevance unless she can respond in kind.

"She needs to show she still can raise money," said Larry Ceisler, a local media consultant whose clients include supporters of Abraham, Kenney, and Williams. "If she can't raise money to be able to put out an effective message, then it makes it difficult, fainting or no fainting."

Should Abraham fade as a challenger, there is every reason to see the race increasingly as a straight-up match between Williams and Kenney.

Which brings us to Wednesday's announcement that the Williams campaign reached a settlement with the city Board of Ethics over campaign-finance violations. The settlement included an $8,000 fine, the forfeiture of $17,250 to the city, and the loss to his campaign of an additional $62,927.

The violations, in part, dealt with funds raised before Williams was a formal candidate. The case turns on arcane rules that can be dense reading for nonlawyers. The Williams campaign has asserted it did little wrong but was settling only to avoid a drawn-out affair.

No matter. The public is left with a settlement that describes multiple "violations" of the city code and "material misstatements" in campaign-finance reports.


"This is not good for Williams," Miller said, noting that Philadelphia's long history of municipal corruption creates a potential for a taint to be attached to a candidate tied to even minor ethical infractions.

The Kenney campaign wasted no time trying to make the link.

"Yesterday, Philadelphians learned that Anthony Williams thinks he can play by a different set of rules," read an online fund-raising appeal for Kenney. ". . . It seems for Williams, ethics take a backseat."

Fair or not, that quick exploitation of a potential Williams weakness seemed further evidence to campaign watchers that Kenney's team, thus far, is proving the better in this fight.

"There is every reason to look at this race and see one campaign as completely collapsing," said Katz, "while the other is a juggernaut."

He warned, however, that it would be a mistake to ignore the yet unmeasured impact of the ongoing television ad campaigns, particularly the $1 million-and-counting effort being waged on behalf of Williams.

"I think they are doing it well," Katz said of the Williams ad campaign. "They are doing it in avalanchian terms. I assume they are going to have to try to tear Jim Kenney apart sometime soon, so I don't think the election ended this week."