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Kenney takes post-primary learning tour

While many Philadelphia politicians spent summer's waning days squeezing out the last of their vacations, Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney was traveling, too - to see how other cities operate.

Jim Kenney, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. (Twitter)
Jim Kenney, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. (Twitter)Read more

While many Philadelphia politicians spent summer's waning days squeezing out the last of their vacations, Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney was traveling, too - to see how other cities operate.

During three days in the Boston area and two in Pittsburgh, Kenney focused on what he would do if elected, a strong likelihood in a city where Republicans are grossly outnumbered.

The former city councilman met in early September with officials in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. The three cities, all home to major universities, have a combined population of about 830,000 and together have similarities to Philadelphia.

In August, Kenney went west and met with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

"We talked some government things and some fun things," Kenney said of that trip in an Inquirer interview. "It's nice to know your counterparts."

If he wins on Nov. 3, his relationships with other mayors could help shape policy decisions here. And it seems Boston might be a font of ideas for him.

"It was a very nice, very clean. . . . The architecture is pretty wonderful," Kenney said. "They should be proud of what they have there."

That visit grew out of a phone call. Mayor Martin J. Walsh called to congratulate Kenney on his May 19 primary win. Walsh, too, was elected by a diverse coalition in 2013.

Walsh offered to show him around, and Kenney, who had cited some Boston initiatives in his campaign, readily agreed.

The pair, Kenney said, quickly grew fond of each other. "We have a lot in common," he said. "We're both Irish . . . and come from the same type of blue-collar families."

They also talked hockey: Kenney tweeted, "Awesome visit w/Mayor @marty_walsh, discussing our cities & reminiscing on '74 Stanley Cup - @NHLBruins v @NHLFlyers!"

Bromance aside, a point of interest for Kenney is Boston's Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, which has tax-exempt entities making voluntary payments to the city on the theory that they pay little or no property tax but enjoy services such as trash removal and fire and police protection. In 2015, Boston received $29.5 million in PILOTs from Boston University, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and others.

Kenney has vowed to create a task force to look into what contributions tax-exempt Philadelphia institutions should make. In the primary, his campaign said he was "committed to at least collecting as much in PILOTs and SILOTs [services in lieu of taxes] as Boston does currently."

PILOTs helped Philadelphia out of its 1990s fiscal crisis but have fallen out of favor here. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the city collected $4.8 million in PILOTs, mostly from pro sports teams that use the stadiums.

Kenney also talked of importing Boston's pedestrian-friendly vibe: "Pedestrians and cars abide by the crosswalk . . . it's ingrained in them," he said. "There's no horn-beeping, no screaming at people."

And its zeal for historic preservation, a priority for him in his final months on Council: He noted that opposite his Boston hotel was the Old State House, built in 1713. Now it doubles as a subway stop.

Looking west for an ally

In Pittsburgh, Kenney chatted with Peduto about that city's protected bike lanes, an idea Kenney wants to expand here.

The two also discussed working with airlines to cut fares between the cities. ("It's a lot cheaper to fly to Boston," Kenney said. Indeed - a recent price check found $409 weekend round trips to Pittsburgh; weekday flights, $614. Philly to Boston? $256, weekend or weekday.)

There was hockey talk, too. Kenney and Peduto are hoping for an annual NHL hockey game between the Penguins and Flyers at Pennsylvania State University's Beaver Stadium. (Another Kenney tweet: "Thanks Mayor @billpeduto for your hospitality in Pittsburgh! Look fwd to returning for a @penguins v @NHLFlyers game!")

Then there's New York City. Three Kenney campaign staffers are to meet this week with aides to a Democrat whose broad electoral coalition seemed almost the model for Kenney's: Mayor Bill de Blasio. They are to discuss how New York officials went about planning for and rolling out universal pre-K education - a centerpiece of Kenney's campaign pledges.

Borrowing ideas

The current mayor, too, traveled after his 2007 Democratic primary win. Michael Nutter looked at how New York and Chicago were run.

When he took office, he adopted a 311 call system - an idea taken from that summer visit to New York, his spokesman Mark McDonald said. Nutter was also inspired by Chicago's sustainability push and vowed to make Philadelphia the greenest U.S. city.

Kenney's chief rival, Republican nominee Melissa Murray Bailey, has no such travel plans. "I have spent the past decade living and working in the best cities in the world and observing how they achieved that status," Bailey said. Independent mayoral candidate Jim Foster called Kenney's trips "distraction politics" that amounted to "running away" from problems he will face if elected.

Kenney said his focus was more on forging ties with other mayors so that if he wins, they can work closely together.

"We have to continue collaborating with other cities," Kenney said.

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