Mayor Jim Kenney has selected Tumar Alexander to become acting managing director, entrusting a widely respected City Hall veteran with Philadelphia’s top non-elected position as the city confronts the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests against systemic racism.
Alexander, 45, who is currently first deputy managing director, will succeed Brian Abernathy in an acting capacity, Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said. Abernathy announced two weeks ago that he would step down on Sept. 4 following criticism of the city’s response to protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Kenney previously said the administration would conduct a broad search for Abernathy’s permanent successor.
“Tumar is certainly under consideration for the [permanent] role,” Gamble said. “In the meantime, the review of the Managing Director’s Office is still underway, and determining the best structure of the city’s operating departments is the mayor’s current focus.”
Managing director, a position unique to Philadelphia, is essentially the chief operating officer, overseeing all city agencies and reporting to the mayor. Abernathy became a highly visible representative of the administration during his brief tenure, thanks to a combination of factors including the increased attention brought about by a time of crisis, Kenney’s propensity to let deputies take front-and-center roles, and Abernathy’s forthright approach.
That increased visibility may have cost Abernathy the position. He announced his planned resignation after becoming a target of demonstrators critical of the city’s heavy-handed response to the protests.
The role is likely to change under Alexander, who prefers to avoid the spotlight and work behind the scenes. That is one of the reasons Alexander is popular with City Council.
“Folks have illusions of self-grandeur. That is not something that Tumar Alexander has suffered from at all,” Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker said in a recent interview. “He’s been much more focused on putting his head down, making sure that the team is successful in delivering a final result.... Philadelphia needs him right now. Philadelphia needs his leadership.”
Abernathy, who is white, said when announcing his planned resignation that he would like to see someone who is “African American, and maybe even an African American woman,” succeed him as the city charts a path forward after the protests.
Alexander, who is Black, got his start in Philadelphia politics volunteering for one of former Mayor John F. Street’s campaigns and worked in the Managing Director’s Office during Street’s administration. During Mayor Michael Nutter’s tenure, he served as a deputy mayor and was the administration’s chief liaison to Council.
When relations between Council and Nutter deteriorated during Nutter’s second term, Alexander was known as one of the few administration officials who maintained credibility on both sides.
Alexander will be Kenney’s third managing director, following Abernathy and Mike DiBerardinis, who retired from city government in January 2019.