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Kenney had plans. Then the pandemic hit. Can he avoid lame-duck status and get Philly ‘back on track’?

Even as coronavirus vaccinations give hope of ending the pandemic, Kenney faces significant headwinds that could shape his second term — and his legacy.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (right) with then-President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, after they placed a wreath at the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn's Landing on Nov. 11, 2020.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (right) with then-President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, after they placed a wreath at the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn's Landing on Nov. 11, 2020.Read moreAlex Brandon / AP

Mayor Jim Kenney began his second term last year by promising citywide street sweeping, hiring Philadelphia’s first Black woman police commissioner with hopes of reforming the department, and proposing a budget that relied on a booming economy to continue the spending increases of his first term.

That all feels like a long time ago.

This year he continues to face the raging pandemic that upended 2020, the resulting economic crisis, and calls to defund the police. Kenney said his goal for 2021 is just to get the city “back on track.” He said he also wants to focus on reducing gun violence, increasing school funding, improving policing, and reducing racial inequities.

”Everything that was important [before the pandemic] … we want to kind of reorder and reemphasize that,” he said in an interview last week. “We still want to get that done.”

But even as coronavirus vaccinations roll out and there’s hope of ending the pandemic on the horizon, Kenney faces significant headwinds that could shape his second term — and his legacy. After winning twice as a progressive, he’s lost support from some allies over the heavy-handed police response to protests and the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. He’s also faced criticism from groups unhappy with the city’s more stringent coronavirus restrictions.

City Council is increasingly pushing its own priorities, and some members are positioning themselves for the 2023 mayoral race — making them less likely to follow the agenda of a lame-duck mayor.

And the impact of the pandemic is likely to last the rest of his time in office.

”COVID represents a structural change within the city,” said Richardson Dilworth, director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy. “It’s inconceivable to me that it hasn’t created more permanent joblessness, more permanent poverty, and all of the pathologies that are going to be associated with that.”

» READ MORE: No phone hotlines, multiple websites, long lines: Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is confusing in Pa. and N.J.

A year ago, Kenney was talking to allies about running for governor in 2022. And despite a rocky 2020, he’s still considering a bid for higher office next year, including a possible campaign for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat. With Republican Sen. Pat Toomey retiring and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf term-limited, both offices are up for grabs.

Running for either would require Kenney to quit as mayor, because of Philadelphia’s “resign to run” rule. That would send shock waves rippling throughout City Hall, most immediately by elevating Council President Darrell L. Clarke to the mayor’s office.

“The plan right now is to do my job. Things happen,” Kenney said. “When I ran for mayor I didn’t lay awake at night looking at the ceiling, wondering, pining to run for mayor. It came together in a very short period of time.”

It’s possible Kenney is merely floating his name for statewide office to maintain his relevance. Second-term Philadelphia mayors can quickly become political punching bags, as Kenney knows well: He was one of the most vocal Council critics of his predecessor, Michael A. Nutter.

“I don’t gauge political standing all the time” Kenney said. “I’ve taken on issues and taken positions that have not always been popular with my perceived original base of people.”

A hands-off pandemic response

As the coronavirus began spreading through the city in March, Kenney initially encouraged residents to “go out and have dinner — and tip your waitstaff,” even as Wolf was asking them to stay home and closing businesses in surrounding counties.

Since then, he’s urged Philadelphians to closely follow public health guidelines and has taken a hands-off approach, making Health Commissioner Thomas Farley the public face of the city’s response. The city’s restrictions have been more stringent than the state’s, which Farley attributes to Philadelphia’s density and high case counts. The restaurant industry, in particular, has criticized the city for limiting its operation.

» READ MORE: Kenney’s hands-off style landed him big wins in a calm first term. Does it still work during crisis?

Kenney himself drew criticism over Labor Day weekend for eating inside a Maryland restaurant while indoor dining was still banned in Philadelphia. He apologized for that incident, and has repeatedly said he understands business owners’ frustrations.

Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the Kenney administration has started holding weekly meetings with representatives for the restaurant industry.

“The meetings right now are more or less being told what’s going to happen,” Bova said. She said she’s hopeful that relationship will become more collaborative as they focus on relief and recovery.

Police protest response upsets progressives

When Kenney first ran for mayor in 2015, he won significant support from the emerging progressive movement, thanks to his record of championing the rights of LGBTQ people and immigrants.

Throughout Kenney’s first term, he stayed in near-lockstep with progressive aims, supporting worker protection bills, fighting to maintain Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city,” and passing a sweetened beverage tax to fund pre-K.

But all that good will was jeopardized in the span of a few days in June, when a militarized police force terrorized a West Philadelphia neighborhood and tear-gassed peaceful protesters on I-676.

Nicolas O’Rourke, organizing director for the progressive Pennsylvania Working Families Party, said the city’s handling of the protests against police brutality “upset a number of people.”

O’Rourke said Kenney could still win people over with significant progress on police reform initiatives and gun violence.

“What I’m really more focused on is how the mayor is going to be addressing gun violence in our community,” O’Rourke said. “There’s a number of things that people want to see happen.”

» READ MORE: After a summer of record protests, Philadelphia’s Black Lives Matter organizers transition into a new season of activism

Kenney has apologized for the use of tear gas, and his administration is pursuing police reforms, including long-sought changes to the disciplinary process for cops accused of misconduct.

“I don’t think it’s hurt me with the progressives,” Kenney said. “I think the things they really care about, I’ve been for and tried to accomplish.”

But there will likely be disagreements ahead, especially as Council’s progressive wing pushes to reduce police funding. Kenney has said he agrees officers shouldn’t be called to respond to incidents a social worker or behavioral health specialist may be better suited to handle. But he has rejected calls to reduce the size of the force.

“I think that the phrase ‘defund the police’ was unfortunate because it set up expectations that not everybody wants,” Kenney said.

For some activists, “defund the police” means exactly what it sounds like.

“I’m expecting more from him and the rest of city leadership … to stop investing in this broken institution that continually punishes and acts violently toward Black and brown Philadelphians,” said A’Brianna Morgan, an organizer with the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia.

Kenney has said that racial inequality will be at the center of his administration going forward, with a focus on improving policing and reducing racial inequities in city services.

But former City Councilmember George Burrell said Kenney and other leaders, including Council, need to be more ambitious to eliminate systemic racism.

“Everybody keeps talking about it, but nobody puts in place a specific plan for how to address it,” he said.

An ‘unenviable position’ on city budget

Police funding won’t be the only budget issue that could cause friction this year.

The city is currently running on razor-thin margins and Kenney said last week that “everything is on the table.” Kenney is hopeful a new federal relief package will include funding for local governments that could spare him from having to cut services or lay off employees like last year.

Mustafa Rashed, a City Hall lobbyist, said Kenney faces a political minefield heading into budget negotiations and will likely have to take unpopular positions to balance the books.

“This is the real one. Last year was smoke and mirrors,” Rashed said. “It’s an undesirable and unenviable position to be in.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s reserve funds could be dangerously low by July. City officials hope for more federal aid.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter’s relationship with Council got rocky during budget negotiations amid the Great Recession. His proposed cuts to the Free Library of Philadelphia proved particularly unpopular, and he later said the move was one of his greatest regrets. By the end of Nutter’s tenure, Council was openly defying the mayor.

Rashed predicted Kenney will go out of his way to avoid a similar fate.

“He knows how quickly, how bad things can be,” Rashed said. “He’s seen it firsthand.”

Clarke said Council won’t always agree with the mayor, but all city leaders want to get through the pandemic, revive the economy, and reduce gun violence.

Kenney, Clarke said, is “doing the best he can given the circumstances.”