Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney coasted to victory Tuesday after months of avoiding the campaign trail and ignoring his GOP opponent, earning a second term despite not having detailed any clear plan for how he’ll use it.
With 83% of precincts reporting, Kenney had more than 80% of the vote against Republican Billy Ciancaglini, and the mayor claimed victory shortly after 10 p.m.
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1, Kenney had done the math, reviewed the history, and decided his reelection was never in doubt. No Philadelphia mayor running for a second term has lost since two terms were authorized seven decades ago.
“I want Philadelphia to be a city of equity where everyone has the same chance to succeed no matter which neighborhood they grew up in,” Kenney told a few dozen supporters at a South Philadelphia union hall around 10:30 p.m.
“I’m ready to continue the fight and to keep confronting the challenges that lie ahead,” he said.
Kenney’s stealth campaign made strategic sense. But it also meant the city’s 99th mayor never articulated an agenda for the next four years, and made no apparent attempt to rally voters around a vision for Philadelphia’s future. That leaves a void other political actors might try to fill.
Complicating the picture is the revelation, reported by The Inquirer days before the election, that Kenney is considering a run for governor in 2022.
“If you’re going to demonstrate that you’re a player, you need to win big. You need to fire people up," said Randall Miller, a political historian at St. Joseph’s University. “I’m not surprised at his strategy … but that doesn’t give you political clout."
Kenney’s campaign and City Hall staff said last week that he was too busy to discuss his plans in an interview, but offered, in a statement, that the mayor does not intend to spend his remaining time in office “staying the course” established in his first term.
“We have an ambitious agenda that focuses on bringing opportunity to residents who struggle amid poverty, investing in neighborhoods, and building a safer and cleaner city for all,” Kenney said.
The statement touted Kenney’s effort to regain city control of the Philadelphia School District and his advocacy of criminal justice reform, while citing “poverty, gun violence, and the opioid epidemic” as “the biggest issues keeping Philadelphia from reaching its full potential as a world-class city."
Kenney’s staff said he has plans to address those problems and more, but he never gave voice to them in the campaign. And if he wants to run for governor, he won’t have much time to act: The City Charter would require him to resign as mayor at the midpoint of his second term.
Can Kenney secure the soda tax?
In a sense, the election served as a kind of ratification of Kenney’s signature achievement: a 1.5-cent-per-ounce “soda tax” added to the cost of sweetened beverages to pay for pre-K programs, as well as programs and repairs for community schools, parks, recreation centers, and libraries.
People hate the soda tax, but love what it pays for. A poll conducted in April for The Inquirer by SurveyUSA found that 62% of respondents called the soda tax a failure, and 55% said it should be repealed. Yet voters in the poll liked the pre-K program by a ratio of 3-1.
Kenney may now need to spend political capital to preserve the achievement.
City Council, which approved the tax by a 13-4 vote in 2016, is awaiting results of an independent study it commissioned in March on the economic impact. The Pennsylvania legislature has also pondered legislation that would preempt cities from passing soda taxes, which would amount to a repeal of the city’s tax.
And at least six members of Council who won reelection Tuesday are now seen as potential candidates in the 2023 Democratic primary for mayor. Their jockeying for position is likely to include discussion on repealing or altering the tax.
The American Beverage Association spent just shy of $19 million from the start of 2016 through the end of September trying to kill it, including almost $1.5 million during this year’s primary, when Kenney faced a pair of soda-tax foes. Kenney stomped them with 67% of the primary vote.
Forward Together Philadelphia, a political action committee, raised $1.26 million to support Kenney. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a soda-tax proponent, gave most of it, with the rest coming from local and national teacher unions.
The Local 98 criminal case plays out in public
Kenney has long touted himself as a “union mayor,” and the independent PAC Philly 2019 raised $930,000 from local building trades unions to support him in the primary. The soda tax also funds “Rebuild” projects, which create jobs for those unions.
One trade union, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, kicked in about 43% of the cash. And the union also helped him win his first term in 2015. In a run for governor, though, Kenney’s alliance with the union and its leader, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, could reinforce some voters’ negative impressions of the city.
Dougherty, City Councilman Bobby Henon, and six co-defendants were charged in a 116-count federal indictment in January that accused them of embezzling more than $600,000 from the union between 2010 and 2016. They have all pleaded not guilty. A high-profile trial is scheduled to start next September.
Kenney has acknowledged receiving a federal subpoena in 2016 for records from his first campaign as part of the Local 98 investigation. And prosecutors sent him an “intercept letter” in 2017, meaning telephone conversations he had with someone under investigation were captured on wiretaps.
One element of the case apparently involves a conversation between Dougherty and Henon, in which they allegedly discussed another City Council member who would need a “little hug” to vote for the soda tax. Dougherty told Henon to dangle the prospect of “major league jobs” for the member’s wife, according to court filings.
If Kenney decides not to run statewide, a recession, predicted by some economists, could clip his wings in Philadelphia by forcing spending cuts — as happened in the first terms of Mayors Michael Nutter and John F. Street before him.
City Council in June approved a $5 billion budget, a 25% increase in spending since Kenney took office in 2016. The budget surplus is now estimated at $429 million, and the city last week said it was investing in a “rainy day fund" to prepare for economic uncertainly ahead.
Does the mayor’s malaise linger?
Kenney has never seemed to enjoy the glad-handing aspects of politics. Not as a councilman. Not as mayor.
He has acknowledged his downcast nature, most recently blaming it on the burdens of office. The one exception: He lights up during visits to pre-school programs, calling children “more perfect than adults.”
Kenney’s style contrasts with that of Ed Rendell, the former mayor with a zest for the give and take of public life who, in 2002, became the first Philadelphian elected governor in more than a century.
At least having secured reelection could grant Kenney the freedom to relax, to be mayor on his own terms.
“From Election Day on, you get less and less relevant,” Miller said. “Which might make him more happy.”
Staff Writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.