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The death of racial math

Philadelphia voters may be poised to look past race and ethnicity as they vote for mayor. Could it be true?

Former City Councilman and mayoral candidate James F. Kenney speaks at a campaign event at the Holy Name Church Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 15, 2015.( JEFF FUSCO / Philadelphia Inquirer )
Former City Councilman and mayoral candidate James F. Kenney speaks at a campaign event at the Holy Name Church Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 15, 2015.( JEFF FUSCO / Philadelphia Inquirer )Read more

IT LOOKS AS IF today's election might be the one, at least the rare one, in which values outweigh race or ethnicity.

Generally, but not always, we vote for people who look like us. It is racial, but not racist. We gravitate toward those who are like us because we feel they will understand us. It is tribal, something buried in the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. Not everyone does that, of course. In recent decades, liberal whites have been more open to voting across the color line than Philly blacks. But we can't forget that for decades blacks did "vote white" - because there were no black citywide candidates.

Having clawed their way into the seats of power, some African-Americans fear that Jim Kenney might roll back the "black empowerment" narrative.

"African-Americans represent 45 percent of the city," says businessman and political analyst Bruce Crawley. "They can't be regarded as a component of the city population. It is the city population. The CEO of the city needs to understand that."

After a half-dozen black elected officials endorsed Kenney in April, creating a multiracial coalition, Crawley wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune, "It was far too early to have any elected officials give away the African-American community's political birthright."

Each candidate I asked said they hope we are past racial math.

Kenney was the first to say it, and he was sincere because in this minority-majority city, he couldn't win with the white vote alone. The last man to do that was Frank Rizzo.

Anthony Hardy Williams told me the same thing, but with less conviction.

Williams built his campaign on capturing the lion's share - hopefully 70 percent - of the black vote. That would cinch victory, but he won't get it, according to last week's Daily News, Inquirer,, NBC10 poll. (Caution: Pollsters in Great Britain and Israel got recent elections very wrong.)

Williams baited his hook with several lures to snag the black vote. He was the "pro-charter guy," something popular in the large part of the African-American community trapped in neighborhoods with lousy, dangerous schools. That should have resonated with parents who want to rescue their children, and they would be very likely to vote. But Kenney, with a promise of universal pre-K, leads among "education" voters in the poll.

Williams' TV commercials featured almost all black faces. If a white candidate produced a "white" TV commercial, he or she would be dead meat. Williams' commercials, some of which came from unaffiliated supporters, amounted to a racial rallying cry.

Finally, and nakedly, Williams did an about-face and joined Milton Street in saying he would ditch Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey a few weeks after saying he would keep him.

That seemed a political equation: Stop and frisk is unpopular in black (and other) communities + police are the enemy in some communities + Ramsey is the commissioner = get rid of the commissioner. The plan was to undercut Street and go one better than Kenney (who stole the Fraternal Order of Police endorsement from Lynne Abraham).

Nelson Diaz also eschewed appeals to race, but told me his victory hinged on capturing nearly all of the Hispanic vote. His problem: Hispanics are a low-turnout community. For mentioning that historic fact, I expect (like colleague Tom Ferrick) to be called anti-Latino and racist.

For his part, Kenney has heavy backing from blue-collar unions that I have heard him describe as mostly racist white men from the suburbs. That he takes their support is a reflection of politics, not approval.

I never could define Abraham's base, but if it were rowhouse whites, those seem destined for Kenney. Doug Oliver and Street seemingly won't siphon off enough black votes to hurt Williams any more than he hurt himself. Add Street's and Oliver's votes to Williams and he's still behind Kenney.

Kenney could make history as possibly the first white mayoral candidate to claim more black votes than any of the black candidates. The only time it might have happened before was 1971, when Bill Green possibly outpolled Hardy Williams in the black community in a three-way race that included Frank Rizzo. David Cohen dropped out but was still on the ballot. Former Democratic City Chairman David Glancey doubts it happened, and there's no way to prove it now.

Should it happen today - both Glancey and master political strategist Neil Oxman doubt it - future elections will determine if it was a sea change, or a wave created by circumstance.

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