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Philly Mayor Jim Kenney shrugs toward primary, with history on his side

Kenney knows Philadelphians think he looks miserable most of the time, despite the very good odds of him winning a second term this year.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.Read moreAvi Steinhardt / File Photograph

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s chance to defend his record came 15 minutes into his first joint appearance with two Democratic primary challengers, after they had each castigated him about the controversial police tactic known as “stop and frisk.”

Kenney, who had promised to end it while running for mayor in 2015, had just explained his efforts to reduce unconstitutional pedestrian stops. A moderator asked whether he wanted to respond to State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

“No,” Kenney said, showing neither interest nor irritation.

Twenty minutes later, Kenney was still taking flak. Again, the moderator asked Kenney if he wanted to respond.

“I’m fine,” he said, and shrugged.

Such is the Democratic primary for mayor in a city where no incumbent who has sought a second term has been denied since two terms were authorized seven decades ago.

Williams is trying to relitigate the 2015 primary, which he entered as a presumptive front-runner but ended with a distant second-place finish to Kenney. Butkovitz is attempting a comeback two years after Democratic voters denied his bid for a fourth term as controller.

And Kenney? He is running the same political prevent defense he used in 2015’s general election, when he paid only as much attention as necessary to a Republican nominee with little chance of victory. Kenney won with 85 percent of the vote after securing 56 percent in a five-candidate primary.

How seriously is he taking Williams and Butkovitz? Kenney called them “annoying gnats” in a recent radio interview, a flash of the pique he often displayed in six terms on City Council, behavior he largely set aside to run for mayor.

“I’ve been told maybe not to do that again,” Kenney said of the name-calling. But he continues to be dismissive of his challengers. “One is retired. He has nothing to do,” Kenney said of Butkovitz. “And the other one has a more flexible schedule, I guess.”

Let’s start with the face

Kenney knows what Philadelphia thinks of his face. He often looks miserable, because he often is.

“It’s a hard job,” Kenney said. “We deal with really serious issues that are seemingly intractable, and we’re working hard to change it.”

The city has an opioid crisis, a climbing homicide rate, potholes that swallow cars, trash swirling along gutters and across sidewalks. It continues to rank as the poorest big city in the nation, with a poverty rate of 25.7 percent.

Kenney grapples with these local problems while also remaining a player on the hyper-partisan national stage, defying President Donald Trump by declaring Philadelphia a “sanctuary city” that won’t help U.S. immigration authorities apprehend some in the country illegally.

It makes for an odd congruence. A South Philly-born politician first elected in 1992 feels comfortable trading shots with the president but can also still look awkward when recognized on the street.

Kenney spoke in an interview shortly after addressing students at his high school, St. Joseph’s Prep, where the Jesuits drilled into him the mission of service to others. “I explained to them that it’s not easy being a Christian,” Kenney said. “It’s hard to balance your Christianity with the things that come out of Trump’s mouth.”

City Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker has been a Kenney ally, though they don’t always agree. She admires him as a “straight shooter” who won’t “sugarcoat” problems.

“He is not a fluffy person,” Parker said. “What you see is what you get. He doesn’t put on one face in one part of the city and then put on another face for someone else.”

There is one place where Kenney seems to genuinely enjoy himself — in classrooms, talking to children of just about any age. Sit him in a chair designed for a much smaller human, give him a book to read aloud and a funny hat to wear. He beams.

“They’re more perfect than adults,” Kenney said.

The numbers are on his side

Nearly a majority of registered voters, 48 percent, approve of the job Kenney has done as mayor while 31 percent disapprove, according to a recent Inquirer Poll.

And Kenney had more than 10 times more campaign money than his two challengers, according to campaign finance reports.

But the city faces serious challenges, and Kenney knows he will get his share of blame.

Voters are worried about crime, and Kenney has seen more than one mayor take heat for climbing homicide rates even as other crimes decrease.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to criticize the mayor or the government for things that are not going right,” Kenney said. “How to fix it is on everyone’s plate.”

His support of supervised injection sites, where people in addiction can use illegal drugs with medical support to prevent overdose, is also controversial.

City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s district includes the neighborhoods most ravaged by opioids. She believes Kenney and his staff are working hard. She also says he is sometimes “sheltered” from voices he needs to hear.

“He goes to a meeting, gets two tough questions and wants to leave," Quiñones-Sánchez said. "He got elected to lead, and that means sometimes leading angry people. My perception with angry people is, angry people care about something. So let’s listen to why they’re angry.”

Standing by the soda tax

Williams and Butkovitz hoped for political support from the American Beverage Association, which has spent more than $16 million fighting Kenney’s top achievement, a 1.5-cent-per-ounce levy on sweetened beverages to pay for pre-K and other programs.

The ABA is airing television ads critical of Kenney that ask Philadelphians to press City Council to repeal the tax. But the industry group is not making moves to underwrite the challengers.

In the Inquirer Poll, a strong majority of registered voters called the soda tax a failure, while also backing the programs it funds. Kenney compares it to people loathing Obamacare but raving about the Affordable Care Act.

He rejects using the city’s $368 million fiscal year 2018 budget surplus to pay for the programs, as some suggest. Bond-rating agencies want Philadelphia to have a cushion.

The tax “is a dependable, direct, reliable revenue” source, Kenney said.

Kenney won passage of the soda tax with muscle from ally Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Local 98′s leader, John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, a boyhood friend; Councilman Bobby Henon; and six other union officials were indicted Jan. 30, accused of embezzling more than $600,000.

Local 98 helped fund an independent expenditure PAC that spent $1.8 million boosting Kenney in 2015.

The mayor has not been accused of wrongdoing, but Williams and Butkovitz seized on the indictments; their attack has not gained traction.

If he wins a second term, what comes after that?

If Kenney wins a second term, he will hand off to the next mayor in January 2024. Who should that be?

“I would like to see a woman,” Kenney said. “I’d like it to be a woman of color, because I think that’s what we haven’t had.”

Parker and Quiñones-Sánchez are frequently discussed as potential candidates. Kenney, citing Quiñones-Sánchez’s opposition to the soda tax, doesn’t see that happening. He calls Parker “strong enough, smart enough” for the job, quickly adding that it was not an endorsement.

As for Kenney, he’ll be 65 when he leaves office, if he wins. That’s young; several people in their 70s are running for president. But he lists reasons not to seek office again.

Congress? It’s all about tenure. How do you build that in your mid-60s? Governor? He’d have to resign in the middle of his next term.

Yet Kenney doesn’t like long-term plans. The students at the Prep asked when it was that he decided to run for mayor. "One hundred days out from the primary,” Kenney said, laughing.

That late entrance and sudden, dominant performance surprised him most of all.

“We had a poll three weeks out from that primary that had me up by like 33 points,” Kenney said. “I said, ‘We got to fire this pollster, because this person is crazy. There’s no way in the world I could be up by 33 points.’ And we won by 30-something. So it was right. I am the most amazed of anyone. ... I was prepared to lose.”