Is Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney really going to run for Pennsylvania governor?
The news that Kenney was considering a 2022 campaign for the Governor’s Mansion took City Hall by surprise — and prompted a good deal of skepticism that he’d follow through.
“I was surprised, like everybody else," said Maurice Floyd, a lobbyist and former city commissioner. "Is he going to do it? ... I don’t think he’s going to do it.”
Most of the dozen-plus City Hall insiders interviewed by The Inquirer, which first reported Kenney’s interest in a statewide race just days before he cruised to reelection this month, said their bet is that Kenney will decide against a gubernatorial run. One frequently cited reason for their skepticism was his personality: Kenney is famously grumpy as mayor, and unlike the jovial Ed Rendell, the last Philadelphia mayor to become governor, often seems harried by being the city’s top executive.
“I don’t see him doing the campaigning, doing the travel,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive and longtime City Hall observer. “If you look at all the work it takes, all the money, it doesn’t scream Jim Kenney. He’s never struck me as a politically ambitious person.”
Then there’s the political risk Kenney would be taking. The Home Rule Charter requires elected officials to resign once they begin campaigning for another office. That means that if he runs, Kenney would likely have to step down as mayor in 2021, less than two years into his second term, which begins in January.
Based on the last two Pennsylvania gubernatorial elections, a winning campaign will likely need to raise at least $20 million — hardly a war chest Kenney could put together at the last minute.
The case for the viability of Kenney, an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump who has championed progressive priorities on immigration and LGBTQ rights, has been bolstered by the recent leftward shift in Democratic politics.
But there’s no shortage of doubt that Kenney could win a general election campaign in what remains very much a swing state. And even winning the nomination would be an uphill climb, with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro widely expected to mount a well-funded campaign. Gov. Tom Wolf, who cannot run for a third term, has already indicated he would support Shapiro.
State Treasurer Joe Torsella is also seen as a possible Democratic candidate for governor. All three are from Southeastern Pennsylvania.
“It could be a crowded Southeast field with him in it,” said David L. Forde, a former senior staffer in City Council. “It could make things difficult, but I would never sell him short.”
Even Kenney’s top City Hall adviser seemed to throw cold water on the prospect in an email to administration officials following Kenney’s reelection victory.
"Please know that no matter what the political prognosticators might say in the press, Mayor Kenney is fully committed to this next term and the work we are about to embark on,” chief of staff Jim Engler wrote in the email, obtained by The Inquirer. “It is an honor to serve the people of Philadelphia alongside you each and every day, and I am excited about what I know we will accomplish over the next four years.”
Others cautioned against dismissing the possibility of a Kenney 2022 campaign, noting that he surprised many when he made a last-minute entrance into the 2015 mayoral race after more than two decades as a City Council member.
“You never know what that guy’s going to do,” Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said. “He has to be considered.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said it makes sense that a term-limited mayor would look west.
“A mayor only gets two terms," she said. "And for the mayor to be considered to move up to run for governor is a good thing, and I think most mayors would consider it.... I think he would have a good shot at winning. He’s the mayor of the largest city in the state, so that speaks for itself.”
Asked for comment, Kenney spokesperson Marty O’Rourke provided an almost identical statement to the one he offered when The Inquirer first reported Kenney’s interest in the gubernatorial race.
“The mayor is flattered that people are urging him to run for governor," O’Rourke said. "While it is a consideration, his biggest priorities remain eradicating poverty, instituting serious criminal justice reforms, confronting gun violence and the opioid crisis, and improving the quality of our children’s education — and doing all he can to help elect Elizabeth Warren president of the United States.”
Kenney’s decision may come down to the state of national politics after the 2020 election. If Trump loses to a progressive like Warren or Bernie Sanders, for instance, the traditional midterm backlash against a new president’s party could make it more difficult for Kenney to win a statewide race.
“The dynamics of the 2020 election are everything," said Mustafa Rashed, a City Hall lobbyist. “It determines the kind of candidate that the state will be in the mood for.... If a candidate like Sen. Warren or Sen. Sanders wins, then any plausible Republican would have a good shot at becoming governor in 2022."