James F. Kenney, a 23-year veteran of City Council and true son of South Philadelphia, rolled to an easy victory Tuesday in the Democratic mayoral primary, making him the odds-on favorite to become Philadelphia's next chief executive.
Backed by an impressive coalition of organized labor, progressive groups, and key African American political leaders, Kenney, 56, defeated former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, former Common Pleas Judge Nelson A. Diaz, former PGW executive Doug Oliver, former State Sen. T. Milton Street, and the candidate once seen as the front-runner - State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.
With 98 percent of the vote counted, Kenney was leading by a better than 2-1 ratio over Williams, his closest challenger. The remainder of the field trailed far behind.
In a low-turnout primary in which fewer than one in three registered Democrats voted, Kenney ran strongly in all sections of the city, and showed remarkable strength among African American voters, a sign that Philadelphia's traditional racial voting patterns may be eroding. That crossover vote proved decisive, as a healthy margin of black voters rejected Williams, the most prominent African American in the race, in favor of Kenney, an Irish Catholic and former Mummer.
Celebrating his victory at Vie Restaurant on North Broad Street, Kenney took the stage shortly after 10 p.m. after making his way through a hugging, hand-shaking ocean of supporters. He thanked his parents, teachers, and campaign workers for building "a historic coalition."
"We are not done," he said. "There's another election in November. . . . I will work to earn everyone's vote."
Williams conceded about 10 p.m.
"I want to congratulate Jim Kenney for running a campaign that was very, very successful," he told supporters at the Sheraton Hotel on 17th Street.
Williams said he still was committed to helping students in Philadelphia and changing police culture in Philadelphia.
"There is a child in a public school in Philadelphia who feels my moment and feels my passion," he said. "I won't stop talking about the obvious - police culture, not just the tactics."
An upbeat Abraham said she had no regrets and was "proud of the campaign we ran." Diaz told supporters, "Thank you for dreaming with me."
Street told supporters who convened in the parking lot of a banquet hall in Nicetown not to await election results. "I definitely had an impact," he added. "I will continue to fight, struggle, yell, holler until we can stop this violence."
As of now, Kenney's only rival for City Hall is Melissa Murray Bailey, a 36-year-old businesswoman who ran unopposed for the Republican nomination. With Democrats holding a nearly 8-1 registration edge, Bailey faces daunting odds in trying to become Philadelphia's first Republican mayor since 1951.
A possible third and more potent candidate is Bill Green, the former city councilman and current School Reform Commission member, who switched his Democratic registration to independent in March in anticipation of a possible mayoral run. "It's something we're looking at," Green said in an interview. "I'm not going to do any planning until after Tuesday."
(City Democratic Chairman Robert Brady said of a Green run, "I wish he would," predicting Kenney would crush him in a fall race. "We'll have a chance to show what we can really do when we're behind one person.")
The man of the moment was Kenney, a passionate if sometimes intemperate son of a firefighter who learned the art of politics as a staffer of then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo before winning a seat on Council in 1991.
Kenney earned a reputation as a maverick who, while a reliable vote on matters important to police and firefighters, defied his conservative South Philadelphia rowhouse roots and became a leader on issues such as gay and lesbian rights, immigration reform, and easing of penalties for possession of marijuana.
Kenney entered this year's race late, only after the January withdrawal of former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo left a coalition of labor and business leaders without a candidate.
Those leaders, led by John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, the head of the powerful electrical workers union, prevailed upon Kenney to resign from Council and take a run to replace outgoing Mayor Nutter.
Kenney inherited the campaign professionals left adrift by Trujillo's withdrawal. He was endorsed by the city's municipal unions as well as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Most important, many of the city's most influential black political leaders, including State Rep. Dwight Evans, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, gave Kenney their blessing.
From the start, Kenney's chief rival was presumed to be Williams, who was counting on support from black voters. Williams also had the backing of three wealthy Main Line financial traders who, like Williams, favor school choice.
Those backers put up $6.8 million in an ultimately unsuccessful ad campaign for Williams.
That effort only raised suspicions for voters such as Mount Airy resident Jane Century.
"I don't understand the logic," Century said. "But it's certainly not out of the goodness of their hearts."
Century's vote went to Kenney, whom she called the "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" candidate.
She touted his knowledge of the issues, but admitted that his connection to union leader Dougherty troubled her. Finding the perfect candidate is a futile search, Century said.
"You don't get to pick the ideal person. You get to pick from who's running," Century said.
Bridget Woodmark, a freelance artist, and her husband, Michael Ruttenberg, a lawyer, each 76, were divided as they left a polling place in South Philadelphia.
Woodmark voted for Williams because she said he came across the best on television. Ruttenberg cast a ballot for Kenney, saying he had run the most effective campaign.
"I know Anthony Hardy Williams and I knew his father, and I had great respect for him," Ruttenberg said, referring to the late State Sen. Hardy Williams. "But I think Anthony got a little desperate toward the end of the campaign, and he went with attack ads."
Williams had a strong showing in far West and Southwest Philadelphia, parts of his senatorial district and home to Hardy Williams High Mastery Charter and the Hardy Williams Veterans Center.
For instance, there was Ella Johnson, 84, a retired school custodian who voted at Mitchell School at 56th Street and Kingsessing Avenue. "He's more for the community," she said of Williams. "Really, I voted for him because I've known him ever since he was a young boy."
But even in Williams' backyard, there were Kenney voters.
Robert Crocker, 87, a retired Water Department employee, liked Kenney's take on the schools and the fact that, unlike Williams, Kenney was a fan of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
"He said he'll keep the police commissioner," Crocker said after voting at the Christy Recreation Center at 56th and Christian Streets. "I like that. He's doing a good job. I just hope he does what he says he's going to do."
Elbert Drakeford was another Kenney supporter.
"Skin color didn't make a difference," said Drakeford, who is African American. "I voted on the issues."
Apparently he was not alone.
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Phila. voters answer ballot questions in the affirmative. A7.
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Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Thomas Fitzgerald, Samantha Melamed, Dylan Purcell, Kristen A. Graham, Jeff Gammage, Ben Finley, Michaelle Bond, and Angelo Fichera.