Newall: Under pressure to smile, Mayor Kenney reviews his rookie season

Mayor Kenney, reviewing his first year in office, talks about the work he has done to fulfill the centerpiece of his campaign: bringing opportunity and growth to the neighborhoods.

Jim Kenney is cooped up in his office with a cold he can't shake.

He's unhappy about that.

And now he's got to answer yet another journalist's questions about his first year in office.

He's unhappy about that, too.

Making matters worse, everyone's on his case about not smiling more. That really gets his goat.

The mayor says he smiles whenever something warrants a smile.

"Ed Rendell said the other day that I don't smile enough," the mayor says. "I mean all right, whatever. If I was Mr. Happy all the time, they'd say, 'Yeah, you're not taking it seriously enough.' "

Plus on this day, Monday, the mayor has more on his mind.

Word is, news could be coming on the lawsuit. The one challenging the initiative Kenney has staked his whole first year on - his whole first term: the soda tax.

Some soda industry associations, local businesses, and residents questioned the legality of the groundbreaking, sweetened-beverage tax the mayor wants to use to fund universal pre-K, community schools, and a renovation of city recreation centers.

The administration thinks the judge might go its way.

"We believe we're in a position to win," he says. "We think we're in good shape."

And though his aides will tell you the mayor finds the whole exercise meaningless, this arbitrary introspection, the mayor talks about the year that passed and the year ahead — a report card for a rookie season.

Challenges that will arise regardless whether or not the judge upholds Kenney's signature accomplishment.

Questions over whether the overwhelmingly white building trade union can really ensure jobs for minority workers as part of the rec center rebuild.

("I'm going to be judged on the results our diversifying efforts," Kenney says. "I can't play around with that from a political standpoint — and I don't want to play around with it from a human standpoint.")

Questions of whether his powerful ally, union boss Johnny Dougherty, is up to the task of the rebuild project while he's also got a federal investigation on his plate. Whether Kenney's own success now rises or falls with Johnny Doc's legal troubles.

Will the kingmaker cast too long a shadow on the man he helped crown?

"Not unless you cast it," Kenney says.

He talks about the work he has done to fulfill the centerpiece of his campaign: bringing opportunity and growth to the neighborhoods. The groundwork his administration has laid to revive sagging neighborhood commercial corridors — and the hope that it will bear fruit.

He talks of Trump. Of the unknowns.

"If this were a Mitt Romney or a George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, I would understand what we had to prepare for and it wouldn't be all that bad," he says. "I have no idea what to prepare for now."

He talks of immigration — of his pledge for our city to remain a sanctuary.

"This is about mayors buckling under the pressures of xenophobes and racists," he says. "This is undocumented brown and black people and that's what drives the underlying source of anger. ... If this were cousin Emilio or Cousin Guido, we wouldn't have this problem because they're white."

He talks about low moments. Three days into office, when Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett was shot by a man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Kenney got up at a news conference and said the attack "had nothing to do with being a Muslim." His words drew the ire of conservative talking heads for days.

"Total bull-," he says.

And moments of joy. Such as when the Democratic National Convention finally left town without incident. "The best day was when they all went home," he says, "because I could stop worrying."

And he talks about the smiling. Or lack of it, sometimes. What do people want him doing, skipping down the lane "saying this is all wonderful and terrific?"

It's not, he said. Like this waiting for the judge.

The morning passes into afternoon. When the news comes, the mayor can hear the cheering in the hall. As he is wont to do, our mayor chokes up. Amid all the challenges, successes and criticism, today at least there is something to smile about.

mnewall@phillynews.com

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