Tommy West was sitting with a few friends at the bar at Mifflin Tavern on Second Street in South Philadelphia, with the Phillies game on in the background.
The team was winning. But what West really wanted to talk about was basketball. More specifically, he wanted to talk about Meek Mill, the rapper whose imprisonment became to many liberals a symbol of the inequities of the justice system. After Meek was freed from jail, he rang the bell at a Sixers playoff game.
Why, West asked, did Mayor Kenney appear to support his release? Hadn’t the guy been locked up for a reason?
To West, Kenney’s position on Mill was just the latest indignity for the people who grew up with Jim Kenney in South Philly. In his view, the area got Kenney — the Irish Catholic Mummer, the firefighter’s son — elected mayor. And ever since, Jimmy from the Block has forgotten where he came from.
“Where does Jimmy Kenney hang out?” asked West, a 41-year-old nonunion construction worker. “Race Street Cafe!” he said, referring to an Old City bar.
On primary day last week, a protégé of Kenney’s lost his bid for Congress in a district that includes South Philly, leading some political insiders to ask privately whether Kenney had lost clout in his own backyard.
Kenney played a starring role in TV ads promoting Democrat Rich Lazer — who had met Kenney as a Mummer, started interning for him as a college student, and eventually became his deputy mayor of labor — for Pennsylvania’s Fifth District. Political analysts estimated Lazer would need to have captured the vast majority of the city vote to win the primary; he got 41 percent.
In interviews after the election, several longtime residents of Kenney’s old neighborhood said he’d had their back while he was on City Council, but are frustrated that he has spent so much time leaning into progressive causes such as criminal justice reform, the city’s “sanctuary city” policy, and moving the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo. They also complained about his soda tax, which passed in 2016, and his proposed property-tax hike.
To Jason, a 21-year-old Pennsport native and Mummer hanging out on a recent weeknight at Mick Daniels Saloon, where Kenney’s grandfather tended bar and shamrocks adorn the walls, there is no question: Kenney is partly to blame for Lazer’s loss.
“Everyone supported Kenney because he had good ideas, and he didn’t follow through with them,” said Jason, who didn’t want to give his last name. “So what’s to say the next guy will follow through?”
Kenney’s allies argue that the mayor is as well-liked as ever.
And, they said, Lazer performed well considering that he had relatively low name recognition and was a first-time candidate. He finished third overall, and took a plurality of the vote in the South Philly portion of the district.
“Mayor Kenney never forgot where he came from,” said John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the leader of the city’s building trades and a longtime friend of Kenney’s. “He just understands that the world is much bigger than our neighborhood, where I still live.”
When you drill into the numbers, they show that Kenney indeed has broad support not only in the city but also in the suburbs.
This year, two internal surveys found that about 60 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in the Fifth District viewed Kenney favorably, sources said. The district is largely located in Delaware County but includes parts of South Philly and Montgomery County as well.
“That’s unbelievable, generally, in this day and age,” said Doc Sweitzer, cofounder of the Democratic consulting firm the Campaign Group.
Even so, some of Kenney’s friends admit there is something in the air in parts of South Philly.
“I know there’s some angst out there towards Jimmy,” said Frank DiCicco, a Kenney ally and former councilman who represented parts of South Philly.
Some political campaigns that knocked on doors this year in Kenney’s old stomping grounds felt that angst firsthand. Lindy Li, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the congressional seat, said South Philly residents had pleaded “that I do something to stop Kenney,” particularly his soda tax and a proposed property-tax hike.
The voters interviewed at Mifflin Tavern and Mick Daniels were largely white, working- and middle-class natives of South Philly. But their enclave is shrinking, and the area, like much of the rest of the city, has become more diverse in recent years. New residents have moved in, helping to elect progressives in recent elections for state legislature and district attorney.
For old friends and neighbors who expected Kenney to represent their Philadelphia, their native son has left — he lives in Old City now — and changed.
“They say he forgot where he came from. That’s what I hear the most,” said a man at Mick Daniels Saloon. “They thought they were going to get preferential treatment.”
A woman at Mifflin Tavern, who did not want to give her name, said Kenney has not pushed back against criticism that Mummers are racially insensitive. She described the parade as “the heart” of South Philly: “In a lot of other neighborhoods, you have kids out on the streets doing drugs, while mine’s in the club gluing feathers to a plume.”
Of Kenney’s critics there, DiCicco said: “The question I would pose to them is: What do you mean he turned his back on you? Depending on who you talk to … I think it’s based more on his progressive agenda that was always there.”
Kenney spokesman Marty O’Rourke said the mayor “tries his best to have everyone’s back” but acknowledged “it’s not always possible to please everyone all the time.” He added that Kenney “enjoys strong, widespread support for his progressive agenda throughout the city.”
In 2015, Kenney won the mayoral primary by piecing together a diverse coalition of groups that are often at odds with one another, including progressives, the mostly white building trades, African American political leaders, the LGBT community, and more.
South Philly “rowhouse” voters, some of them moderate and conservative Democrats, were a key part of that coalition. Kenney grew up on the 300 block of Cantrell, joined the Jokers Mummers Brigade, and was longtime chief of staff to former State Sen. Vince Fumo.
Even if Kenney’s popularity has faded in some pockets of this constituency, it’s considered almost impossible to defeat an incumbent mayor in Philadelphia. Kenney will be up for reelection in 2019.
It can be hard to sustain such a diverse coalition, and Lazer’s loss might just show that personal popularity doesn’t always translate to an endorsed candidate.
But Alan Butkovitz, a former city controller and potential mayoral candidate, said: “He made a lot of promises, some of which were contradictory, and … all those different communities are remembering what they thought they heard him promise, and feel betrayed.”
Of course, some people in Kenney’s old neighborhood think he’s doing a good job.
Joe Slivinski, a 51-year-old wholesale distributor who was eating wings at Mick Daniels, doesn’t like the soda tax but said upkeep on his street has improved, tourism is big, and the real estate market is strong.
“I think the city’s doing really well,” he said.