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Ferrick Asks: Will Philadelphia liberals come around for James Kenney?

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of questions The Next Mayor is asking — and answering — of the current candidates' campaigns. Monday: Lynne Abraham's campaign. Tuesday: Nelson Diaz's campaign. Wednesday: Doug Oliver's campaign. Thursday: Anthony Hardy Williams' campaign.

Question 5: Can Jim Kenney win the support of Philadelphia's liberals?

The candidate and his aides say he can and will. And getting a big slice of the liberal vote would give him a big boost in his numbers, along with his expected strong support among South Philadelphia Democrats.

It's South Philly that has served as his base since he first ran for Council-at-Large.

In this city, the word "liberals" is really shorthand for white voters, most of whom live in Center City and environs you could also include as annexes: University City's 27th Ward and the Ninth Ward in Chestnut Hill.

That's not to say that all of the city's liberals who are white live in these wards, but this is where they are concentrated -- these seven wards have about 67,000 active Democratic voters.

Right now, these wards don't have a favored candidate, and Kenney can make a decent claim that he will emerge as their choice, simply by process of elimination.

The question is: Which Jim Kenney?

Is it Kenney the progressive, who has championed gay rights and the cause of immigrants?

Is it Kenny the union guy, backer of teachers, firemen and cops?

Is it Kenney the protégé of Machiavelli? His mentor -- and chief sponsor for years -- was Vince Fumo. In fact, the power Kenney wielded in Council was partly due to Vince's patronage. (For the record, Kenney says he hasn't talked to Fumo for years, even before the senator went to jail.)

Is it Kenney, the favorite of union boss John Dougherty? Once a bitter enemy, Kenney has made up with Dougherty to the degree that Doc has plans to support him with his own super PAC. In fact, that super PAC may end up with more money than Kenney's own campaign fund.

Add it up and there is something about Kenney for everyone to like -- or dislike.

For one example, while Johnny Doc is a household name in the city -- and synonymous with the power of unions -- he is decidedly unpopular among liberals. For proof, look at his vote totals in the liberal wards when he ran in 2008 to replace Fumo in the state Senate. Larry Farnese won that race. Farnese and candidate Anne Dicker dominated the vote in the liberal wards in the district, while Doc tanked.

Or take the case of Kenney himself. Kenney had the political equivalent of a near-death experience in the 2007 Democratic primary. He ran fifth in the race for one of the five Democratic at-large seats, 20,000 or so votes behind top vote getters Bill Green and Blondell Reynolds Brown. He edged out a sixth candidate, Sherri Cohen, the daughter of the late Councilman David Cohen, by only 1,754 votes.

Cohen ran strong in the liberal wards, beating Kenney by 1,737 votes. It was his base in South Philadelphia that rescued him from defeat.

His showing in that campaign can be taken as evidence of a weakness in Kenney's appeal, and not just among liberal voters.

He has a couple of months to build it up if he runs a sharp campaign.

Liberal voters are often late deciders. It wasn't until shortly before the primary in 1999 that they decided they could not countenance having Marty Weinberg win the Democratic nomination for mayor. They voted strategically and went for the candidate with the best chance to beat Weinberg: John Street. He won those seven wards with 36 percent of the vote.

Late deciders. Strategic voters. Liberals are usually a key to a candidate's success.

Tom Ferrick Jr., a former Inquirer reporter and columnist and the founder of the news site Metropolis, is writing regularly on the 2015 mayoral race for The Next Mayor.