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Kenney's campaign brain trust tells how he did it

Describing Jim Kenney's nascent Philadelphia mayoral campaign, Ken Snyder called to mind an improbable escape scene from a famous comic film.

Philadelphia Democratic mayoral candidate and former city councilman Jim Kenney and supporters celebrate on Election Night.  Tuesday, May 19, 2015. (  Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Philadelphia Democratic mayoral candidate and former city councilman Jim Kenney and supporters celebrate on Election Night. Tuesday, May 19, 2015. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read more

Describing Jim Kenney's nascent Philadelphia mayoral campaign, Ken Snyder called to mind an improbable escape scene from a famous comic film.

"All right, we're down 14 points and we have $75,000 in the bank," said Kenney's political strategist, recounting the candidate's initial standing in the polls and the state of his finances. "It felt like The Blues Brothers: 'It's dark out, we're wearing sunglasses, and we're out of gas. Let's hit it.' "

Snyder may have slightly misquoted Dan Aykroyd's classic line, but the sentiment was dead-on: Here was as impossible a mission as a campaign strategist could face - a late start, an underfunded candidate, and two formidable opponents.

Of course, we know the outcome - on May 19 Kenney won in a rout, capturing 56 percent of the Democratic primary vote, leaving state Sen. Anthony H. Williams and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham as well as three other candidates far behind.

Last week, Williams spoke with The Inquirer about how he lost, crediting Kenney's "class act" and his own failure to send voters a clearer message. Now, the winner's campaign brain trust is talking about how Kenney won, and won so big.

Snyder and campaign pollster Anna Greenberg shared Greenberg's post-election polling memo with The Inquirer and offered their own take on how Kenney, a 23-year City Council veteran, managed to beat the odds - and five rivals - to become the Democratic nominee.

In their telling, Kenney's win was foreshadowed in that first poll that had him trailing so desperately. They worried more, at times, about Abraham than Williams. They held their breath for a month-long stretch, waiting for a wave of negative ads that never came. Finally, they said, Kenney won by working harder than his rivals to build a coalition of labor, progressive and African American leaders that had never been a given.

"We had a plan," said Snyder, "and Jim executed that plan."

A quick recap: Kenney did not enter the race until late January, after former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo unexpectedly withdrew. Kenney was recruited by Snyder and labor leaders, including John Dougherty, the head of the electrical workers union, who had been backing Trujillo.

Greenberg conducted an initial poll (March 4) that found Kenney trailing Abraham by 14 percentage points but leading Williams, long the presumed favorite, by four points.

"I felt pretty confident, at that point, that we could win," she said.

Her optimism was based on two factors.

One was that although Kenney was still relatively unknown to voters, the poll showed they were apt to support him as they learned more about him.

"It struck me that Jim had room to grow, that we had the potential of having a broad-based coalition of voters," she said.

Greenberg's poll suggested the opposite for Williams, the most prominent of three African American candidates in the race.

"You could see that Williams had a real ceiling, even among African Americans," she said. "His name recognition among African Americans was 80 percent and, at his high point, he was at 44 percent among African Americans. . . . People sort of knew him and were underwhelmed."

Abraham, however, was another story. Having served 19 years as district attorney, she enjoyed unrivaled name recognition.

"Lynne Abraham had every opportunity to win this race," Snyder said. "At that point, she had a better standing than us. She had more resources than us. She was an appealing candidate in that she is super-smart and has a persona and an identity. But she never put it together. . . . She let us grow at her expense."

Snyder offered the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' endorsement as an example. He said Kenney campaigned hard for it, visiting schools and selling himself individually to teachers. Snyder said that extra effort set Kenney apart from Abraham - and paid off as the 12,000-member PFT mobilized to help elect him.

"Without the teachers," Snyder said, "our coalition just gets killed in the crib."

'Dwight, Dwight . . . '

Snyder pointed to another critical component.

"There is no coalition unless you add African Americans to it," he said. "It was obvious there was just one place to go, and that was Dwight Evans."

Snyder said the campaign and Kenney assiduously courted the powerful state representative and his chief ally in the city's Northwest, Councilwoman Marian Tasco.

"Every day I sent Jane a text that just said: 'Dwight, Dwight, Dwight," Snyder said, referring to Jane Slusser, Kenney's campaign manager. "And every morning she'd write back: 'Working on it.'

" . . . Jim was like a dog on a bone. Jane was relentless. They met with [Evans and Tasco] many times. There was a lot of back-and-forth."

Finally, in early April, Evans and Tasco endorsed Kenney. Two weeks later, Greenberg conducted a second poll (April 21), in anticipation of the campaign launching its TV ads.

The results showed a remarkable swing for Kenney, who now led: He polled four points ahead of Williams and 13 points up on Abraham. His surge had occurred even as Williams was benefiting from a $500,000-a-week television advertising blitz.

"I knew at that point we were going to win," Greenberg said. "Of course, no one in the campaign was going around saying that. They were like, 'shh,' and worked like they were going to lose."

Kenney soon launched his own ad campaign, with Snyder and Greenberg both feeling as if they had dodged a bullet - none of the other campaigns had yet used negative ads against their candidate.

"They waited too long," Greenberg said. "If you are going to go negative, you have to do it before candidates define themselves."

Kenney's difficulty was that it took him until less than three weeks before primary election day to have raised enough money to start his own "defining" television ad campaign.

"Jim's story was still unformed," Snyder said of the campaign's initial weeks. "We were incredibly vulnerable. If anybody attacked us, we would not have had the money to fight back."

But unforeseen circumstances played a part. Williams seemed to lose ground by vowing to fire popular Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. And Abraham memorably fainted - on TV.

Adam Geller, the Republican pollster whose May 9 to 11 survey of 600 likely voters for The Inquirer found Kenney far ahead of his competitors coming into the race's final week, said those events worked in the winner's favor.

"One of the things Kenney did well was build coalitions," Geller said. "But you also have to acknowledge that his campaign benefited from events outside of its control. Lynne Abraham's fainting during the first debate, for instance. And Anthony Hardy Williams' criticism of the police commissioner."

Snyder, meanwhile, did not allow himself the luxury of seeing everything as breaking Kenney's way.

"It is excruciating when you are four points up three weeks out and know that it is yours to lose," he said. "Those are three long weeks - and the other side had more money. But Jimmy's 'favorable' just kept going up. It just got to the point were he was impenetrable."