USA, meet Jim Kenney: How 'big win' on soda tax raises Philly mayor's political stock

Mayor Kenney with Councilman Derek Green after the tax won approval. Council President Darrell L. Clarke praised how collaborative Kenney was.

The day after Philadelphia became the first big U.S. city to tax soda by the ounce, Mayor Kenney got powdered up for a CNN interview as the phones in his office kept ringing.

Other cities wanted to know how he'd done it. National headlines said, "Philadelphia passes soda tax after mayor rewrites playbook." Ed Rendell's brother, a lawyer, texted from Texas: "Congrats on the soda tax."

Former Gov. Rendell gushed Friday: "This is a big win for Jim Kenney. Being the first major city in the country to do this is significant, and he did it for the right reason."

Kenney, six months on the job, succeeded where many U.S. mayors had failed, besting a powerful beverage industry and securing consensus around a potentially unpopular tax by pegging it to antipoverty initiatives instead of sugar's harmful health effects.

The 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax City Council passed Thursday is the highest of its kind in the nation. Among other things it will fund prekindergarten, community schools, and parks and recreation centers.

It's a legacy-making achievement that political observers predict will attract more attention than ever to a mayor who shuns the spotlight.

"He doesn't want to be governor, doesn't want to go be a political analyst on TV," said Rendell, who did want all that. Kenney evinces no interest in higher office, and never stops touting his South Philadelphia rowhouse roots.

But the win gives him a national profile, which could help the city's interests in Washington and Harrisburg. When he delivers welcome remarks at the Democratic convention here next month, more listeners will know his name.

The tax already had the attention of the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, who endorsed it in the April primary. Kenney had to defend his idea on a national stage when her rival, Bernie Sanders, took the opposing view.

But the battle was mostly a local one. By March, Kenney had visited so many pre-K classrooms that when a cold plagued him for weeks, he half-jokingly blamed all his high-fives with youngsters.

He also kept in such constant contact with members of Council that its president praised the tactic after Thursday's 13-4 vote, comparing Kenney favorably with his own mentor.

"I think he's reached out more to individual Council members than, probably more than in history," Darrell L. Clarke said. "I know my former boss John Street will disagree with me, but the reality is [Kenney's] done that. . . . If you call, he says he'll pop up [to Council's offices], I'll pop down, so it's been a good relationship."

Kenney's initial 3-cent-per-ounce proposal drew former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the cause. He gave $1.6 million to the pro-tax campaign here - because, he said, this fight looked winnable. Some 30 cities had tried; only Berkeley, Calif., succeeded.

"If Berkeley was a tremor, Philadelphia is an earthquake," said Howard Wolfson, senior aide to Bloomberg. "And we think there will be more earthquakes going forward."

Kenney emailed Bloomberg on Thursday to thank him for his backing - and for paving the way with a famously failed effort to ban large sodas in New York. (Not that the two are close: Last month Kenney laughed when asked if he sees the billionaire often. "I don't run in Bloomberg circles," he said.)

Neil Oxman, the longtime political media strategist, said the Bloomberg-backed ads mattered.

"This was a bloody fight publicly," Oxman said. "It's a really big deal. It's a big deal locally, and a big deal nationally, and I think that he did it without destroying his relationships with City Council members matters."

Six months in office is hardly a time to take bets on an officeholder's future. But Oxman said Kenney could have a national presence - if he wants it.

Much depends, of course, on how the tax works, whether it survives in court, and what the public thinks of it.

"We'll have to wait to see what the impact is, how much revenue gets generated," and how the tax hits soda sales, said Franklin and Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna. "Similarly, we don't know its total impact on the mayor and what that will mean for his future."

One fan of Kenney's fight cheered Thursday's vote from 2,800 miles away, watching via livestream. Berkeley Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who pushed that city's soda tax to victory in 2014, remembers the calls afterward - from Seattle, London, even the Mariana Islands.

"Berkeley was the first, but with a city the size of Philadelphia - the writing is on the wall," Capitelli said.

On Friday evening, Kenney spoke with CNN from a studio near Rittenhouse Square. Afterward, the mayor had other plans: He had tickets to the Phillies game.

jterruso@phillynews.com215-854-5506@juliaterruso