The campaign stop was routine - hands to shake, photos to be taken. Yet on a Sunday afternoon in Northeast Philadelphia, Jim Kenney started to tear up.

The son of a firefighter, Kenney was at a school to help paint a mural honoring Michael Goodwin, a firefighter killed in the line of duty. After taking a turn with a paintbrush, he bent to talk to Goodwin's young grandson, telling him his grandfather was a hero who watches over him still.

"I'm a little leaky today," said Kenney, long known for the kind of emotional outbursts that get a politician in trouble - or show that he is human.

Having easily won the Democratic primary, Kenney has spent the slow six-month crawl toward Tuesday's election releasing policy papers, attending debates, quietly assembling his administration, and finding the emotional discipline fit for a mayor.

Allies say his three-plus decades in the political world, the bonds he's built there, and, yes, his say-it-as-I-see-it candor, can serve the city well.

"Jimmy has run a campaign on letting people see who he is," said Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. "I think the citizens know who he is. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and I think that's a good thing."

Others who have tasted the frustrations of trying to run the city say only time will tell.

"Jim is known as being a hothead, and we haven't seen that on the campaign," said Phil Goldsmith, a former city managing director. "Whether he can keep that under control as mayor and in the pressure cooker remains to be seen."

Taking up causes, cudgels

Kenney, 57, got his start in politics working for Vincent J. Fumo, the once-powerful and now-fallen state senator. He's quick to remind you that the two haven't spoken in eight years.

He was elected to City Council in 1991 as an alternative to Councilman Francis W. Rafferty, who openly battled LGBT activists.

From challenging homophobia before it was fashionable, to emerging as one of the nation's most progressive candidates for mayor - Segal calls it a fitting circle. "What you did 25 years ago says a little about you and it can also say a lot," he said.

Kenney is arguably at his most effective when he sees an injustice he wants to remedy - from marijuana arrests disproportionately targeting young African American men, to fighting for domestic partnership rights for gay and lesbian couples.

This summer, when a Catholic schoolteacher was fired for her same-sex marriage and the church pushed back on LGBT participation in the papal visit events, Kenney labeled leaders of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia "cowardly men."

"He didn't need to fight that battle," said Segal. "I called him and I said, 'There are many among us who will fight that battle.' He was adamant."

Still, a man who called Gov. Christie a "fat ass" on Twitter and dissed the current mayor in terms unprintable has simmered down considerably.

"In the course of this campaign, I have learned that being disciplined in that regard is in my best interest and in the city's best interest," Kenney said. "In the end, I don't think you get anything done by just being angry, and I will admit in the latter stages of my Council career, I was angry because I was frustrated - and even though I'll probably be frustrated in this job, you can actually do something about it."

His proposals include offering universal pre-K education to all 4-year-olds in the city within four years, an expansion he said would cost $60 million.

In a school district already starved for funds, that would mean major arm-twisting. Kenney says he'd find $40 million in part by selling off the city's myriad tax liens and raising values on tax-abated properties. He'd look to nonprofits and the private sector for the remaining $20 million, possibly through payments in lieu of taxes.

Can it work? Yes, says Bill Green, former chair of the School Reform Commission, who has often clashed with Kenney, and Mark Gleason, head of the Philadelphia School Partnership (though Gleason argues "the way to show real seriousness" is to pledge some city funds up front).

Kenney also wants to expand the city's port to bring in blue-collar jobs and combat poverty. He vows to open up city work to ex-offenders, and do away with the police tactic known as stop-and-frisk.

'Like being a point guard'

To do much of that, of course, he'd need Council help. He predicts it will come easier than it did for another Council alum, Mayor Nutter - who Kenney says didn't try hard enough to make members feel included.

"Elected officials all want to be relevant and they all want to be loved, and if you help them to be relevant and help them feel loved, they'll do anything for you," he said. "It's like being a point guard on a basketball team. You have to make all the other team members look good to win."

Nutter says that once you're in the hot seat, things change. Mayors get hit with the unexpected - in his case, a recession. Social-service costs rose as revenues fell.

"I served with folks for a long time ...," Nutter said of Council, "but it is really, really hard at times to say no to your friends, and your friends don't particularly take it well when you say no."

Kenney's Republican rival, Melissa Murray Bailey, questions how he would keep his wide array of supporters happy - particularly whether he would be beholden to labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, a key backer.

Kenney casts such ties as a positive: "The ability to call them up and talk to them, I think, is better than being their enemy."

As for becoming mayor? To go from a South Philadelphia rowhouse to the second floor of City Hall still puts him in awe.

Watching a Flyers game recently at the Wells Fargo Center, Kenney realized that next July, he might be opening the Democratic National Convention there. His father, who worked at the Spectrum when the Flyers played there, would bring home mementos left on the ice - such as right wing Gary Dornhoefer's broken stick.

A young Kenney taped it up and used it for street hockey.

"I hope I can get through it," he said of his potential convention greeting. "If that was in the Spectrum, I would never be able to."


James F. Kenney


Party: Democratic

Age: 57

Residence: Old City

Occupation: Former city councilman at-large

Education: St. Joseph's Preparatory School (1976); B.A., La Salle University, political science (1980).

Family: Separated; son, Brendan, and daughter, Nora.

Career: Administrative assistant to State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), 1980-84; chief of staff to Fumo, 1984-92; councilman at large, 1992-2015.