Brian Abernathy is one of the most powerful people in Philly. Coronavirus and protests put him in the spotlight.
Managing Director Brian Abernathy has become more visible and influential than many of his predecessors, thanks mostly to the dual crises defining his tenure.
When protesters took over the lobby of the Municipal Services Building, they came with a list of demands, including the resignation of a top city official. But it wasn’t Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney or Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw they were after.
“Abernathy, resign!” the crowd of about two dozen chanted on June 23, while hundreds more massed outside the building across from City Hall.
An unelected official who serves as Philadelphia’s top bureaucrat, Managing Director Brian Abernathy may seem an odd choice for demonstrators to target. But from his office 14 stories above the lobby where police arrested the protesters, Abernathy has become more visible and influential than many of his predecessors. That’s due primarily to the unprecedented crises now defining his tenure — the coronavirus pandemic and protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — but it’s also a product of the leadership style of Kenney, who is quick to delegate and share the spotlight.
“Brian has become the personification for when people don’t like things within the administration,” said Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr., a Montgomery County commissioner who worked with Abernathy early in his career and remains a close friend. “I don’t remember this with previous managing directors.”
Steph Drain, an activist who was arrested at the demonstration, said the goal was to highlight the city’s plan to cut the police budget by moving some of its funding to Abernathy’s office. Drain viewed that as a smokescreen.
“Whatever Brian Abernathy says, it’s bulls—, and he needs to resign,” said Drain, 22, a Community College of Philadelphia student. “I’m not somebody who stands for reform. I don’t believe in reforming a broken system.”
“I stopped paying attention,” he said. “At some point, you have to do what you think is right, because no matter what choices we make, people are going to be upset.”
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Interviews with more than a dozen current and former associates portrayed Abernathy as highly intelligent, hardworking, and honest. Many also describe him as having a short temper and center-left politics that are sometimes out of step in arguably the city’s most progressive administration.
Abernathy received generally positive marks for the city’s efforts to stem the coronavirus, which spared Philadelphia the devastation wrought on New York City, but significant criticism for its handling of the protests, with a police response seen as both unprepared and heavy-handed. One city councilmember questioned whether the mayor has burdened Abernathy with too many duties.
“If someone wants a hard worker who could multitask, Brian is one of those guys, but I don’t think a computer could do what he’s trying to do,” Councilmember Mark Squilla said.
Kenney praised Abernathy, and said his reliance on the managing director and department heads is intentional.
“I wouldn’t call it delegation. I would call it collaboration. ... I sit and collaborate, listen to the experts, and the people with experience in those areas,” Kenney said. “I have the ability to veto that decision or go in a different direction, but that doesn’t happen often.”
A vast portfolio
A position unique to Philadelphia among major cities, the managing director is a mayoral appointee who oversees the city’s operational departments, from streets and public health to police and fire. As envisioned by the Home Rule Charter, the office serves as an apolitical buffer between the everyday work of municipal government and the mayor’s whims and wishes.
Department heads are technically appointed by and report to the managing director, not the mayor. And unlike deputy mayors and the chief of staff, managing directors can only be fired for cause.
But mayors have wide latitude to shape the office. Michael A. Nutter, for instance, diminished his managing directors’ influence by empowering deputy mayors to become more involved with running departments. Kenney’s approach is more aligned with how the position is designed in the charter, relying on Abernathy to oversee a vast portfolio.
Abernathy, who makes $196,000 per year following a 7% coronavirus-related pay cut, arrives at his near-empty office at 7:30 a.m. each day to respond to emails before an onslaught of meetings begins. During the pandemic, those have been conducted virtually, with officials scattered across the city. On Tuesday, he had meetings on the controversy over the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia, the School District, and the juvenile detention system — all before getting lunch, a blackened catfish platter from the Reading Terminal Market. The afternoon brought a virtual news conference, a meeting on the city’s violence prevention efforts, a staff check-in, and a coronavirus planning session.
In the early evening, his phone rang with an urgent call: The Philadelphia Housing Authority was considering using its independent police force to remove a homeless encampment outside its headquarters. Administration officials were nearing a deal with leaders of a related encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, whose residents had labeled the area a “no cop zone.”
“What they’re trying to do is going to f— everything up on the Parkway, and I’m not going to f—ing put up with it,” Abernathy said to the caller, an official he instructed to tell the PHA, “Don’t do anything unless you hear from us.
“And you can say that’s a direct order from the managing director,” he said.
From Boston to Philly
Like Kenney and many in his inner circle, Abernathy made his bones in the rough-and-tumble politics of South Philadelphia. But the similarities stop there.
A native of Boston who spent most of his high school years in Arkansas, Abernathy had an upper-middle-class upbringing and majored in “political and philosophical theater” at Coker College in South Carolina. He wanted to become a playwright and director. In college, he penned several plays, including an unfinished comedy called Why Women Shave Their Legs. He first moved to Philadelphia for an apprenticeship with the Arden Theatre Company.
But after realizing he wasn’t cut out for directing, he turned to politics.
“Actors are very special people, just like politicians, and dealing with five, six, 10 actors takes a really special person,” he said. “I can handle one politician.”
After working in constituent services for a state senator, he landed a job as a legislative aide for then-City Councilmember Frank DiCicco, and eventually became the South Philadelphia Democrat’s right-hand man. He worked closely with Kenney, who was on Council at the time and like DiCicco was a product of former State Sen. Vince Fumo’s political organization.
“He was an extremely bright young man. He knew what I was going to say before I even said it most of the time,” said DiCicco, now a lobbyist. “He was a little bit — I don’t want to say hotheaded, that’s too strong of a word, but a little bit ambitious.”
A flirtation with electoral politics
A turning point came when State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) defeated Electricians union leader John J. Dougherty in a 2008 primary for the Senate seat Fumo vacated after being indicted on federal corruption charges.
Before the election, Abernathy harbored dreams of running for office, possibly succeeding DiCicco. He took a leave from his Council job to help run the campaign for Farnese, Fumo’s chosen successor.
Farnese went negative and Dougherty, despite his tough reputation, mostly kept it clean, Abernathy said. At the time, however, Abernathy and other Fumo allies assumed that Dougherty was up to no good. And at one point, they spread word that his longtime spokesperson, Frank Keel, was involved in a break-in at Farnese campaign offices, Keel recalled.
Keel took exception and, shortly after the general election, let Abernathy know at Pennsylvania Society, the annual Manhattan gathering of the state’s political class. They got into a fistfight, with Abernathy at one point taking swings while his wife tried to restrain him.
Abernathy’s experience left him questioning whether he wanted to make a career of electoral politics, a thought that crystallized in an earlier moment on election night.
“I’m standing on Passyunk Avenue,” he recalled, “and one of Fumo’s longtime friends came up and looked at me and said, ‘Y’know, we always knew you were smart, we always knew you worked hard, but we never knew you were that ruthless.’ And it was that moment I was out.”
So Abernathy committed himself to advancing behind the scenes. During Nutter’s administration, he served as chief of staff in the Managing Director’s Office, and as executive director of the Redevelopment Authority. Kenney installed Abernathy as first deputy managing director, a position he held until taking the top job 18 months ago after Mike DiBerardinis retired.
Abernathy had hoped to focus on the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and gun violence. But even before the pandemic, his tenure was marked by a series of catastrophes: the refinery explosion in South Philadelphia, the sudden closure of Hahnemann University Hospital, a deadly gas explosion near Passyunk Square, the shooting of five police officers in Tioga, and the resignation of Police Commissioner Richard Ross.
“It’s certainly not the tenure as managing director I was hoping for, but it’s the one I was given,” he said. “None of these things are easy, but I think I’ve had my arms wrapped around both the city operations and how we respond as well as anybody could, if not better. But I am ready for a break.”
‘This is our moment’
During Abernathy’s front-and-center role in the city’s daily coronavirus briefings, rumors swirled that he was eyeing a run for mayor in 2023. A few weeks later, following criticism of the city’s response to the protests, there was talk Kenney was on the verge of firing him.
Administration officials and Abernathy strongly denied both possibilities, but the rumors are emblematic of his centrality in this moment in the city’s history.
Abernathy said his relationship with Kenney hasn’t changed, despite rumors of discord.
“Oh, it’s fine. I would say, how’s anyone’s relationship with the mayor?” Abernathy said of his famously grumpy boss. “I’ve known Jim a long time. I know his moods. I know his personality pretty well. This has been really hard for all of us, and we’ve all had pretty s—ty days at times.”
Abernathy has been criticized for withholding information related to the pandemic that other cities have made public, and for being caught off guard on the first day of the protests, when Outlaw acknowledged there were not enough officers in Center City.
“I was dumbfounded by how out of touch I truly was,” he later told city councilmembers. “And how I had underestimated the anger and rage and frustration of folks I’m hired to serve.”
While the protests have pushed the administration to prioritize some long-sought reforms, Abernathy, as one of the administration’s more moderate voices, is unlikely to come around on the protesters’ most sweeping demands, like significantly shrinking the police force.
When the administration was considering how to follow through on Kenney’s campaign promise to end stop-and-frisk policing, Abernathy sided with the Police Department, which promised to crack down on improper applications of the tactic, but said attempting to eliminate it wasn’t wise. Kenney abandoned his promise.
The protests, Abernathy said, have provided urgency to tackle racial justice more aggressively. The administration had already prioritized racial inequities in government services, but Abernathy said the protests made him realize that “didn’t go very deep, and it didn’t go very far.”
“We have a society and a system that doesn’t work for all people, and this is our moment,” Abernathy said. “We better not f— it up.”