Mayor Jim Kenney skirmished with his Democratic primary challengers Monday evening in the race’s only televised debate, as State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz derided his record in office.
The conversation turned testy toward the end of the hour-long debate, which aired on NBC10, when Kenney threw a barb at Butkovitz, who lost a bid for a fourth term as controller two years ago.
“The fact of the matter is, Mr. Butkovitz was fired by the voters because he didn’t do his job,” Kenney said, accusing Butkovitz of failing to adequately audit city agencies.
Butkovitz said he lost because he had always bucked the city’s political establishment and didn’t “ask for permission of John Dougherty and the powers that be before I do something.”
That was a reference to the leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a power broker and key Kenney ally, who was indicted in January, accused with seven other union officials of embezzling more than $600,000.
As Butkovitz and Kenney bickered, Williams drew a laugh by leaning into his microphone and saying, “I’m Anthony Hardy Williams and I’m running for mayor.”
Williams and Butkovitz continued to attack Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax, which pays for pre-K education and other programs.
Williams said the city could fund those programs through its budget surplus instead of taxing people, an option Kenney rejects.
“I think the Philadelphia government has more than enough money to support pre-K and other after-school programs they believe in,” Williams said.
Kenney said the city’s budget surplus had to be maintained in case of economic downturn. “You never know when you’re going to have a recession,” he said.
Williams and Butkovitz also tag-teamed Kenney on his support for supervised injection sites, where addicted people could use illegal drugs surrounded by medical help to prevent overdoses.
Kenney said nothing was “imminent” in that proposal, which would be run by a nonprofit, but acknowledged community concern about one proposed location.
“If they’re out on the street in an alleyway, they’re going to be dead,” Kenney said. “We have to be near where people are injecting.”
Williams dismissed proximity as a problem. “People come from all over the place,” he said. “You could put it in Rittenhouse Square and it would be overrun.”
Butkovitz, who opposes such sites, accused Kenney of backpedaling in an election year, calling it “classic Jim Kenney, he’s both for it and against it at the same time.”
Kenney defended his administration and the Philadelphia Police Department, noting that he had declared a public health crisis for the homicide rate, which is increasing even as violent crime overall dips. The mayor complained about Republican efforts in the Assembly to preempt cities and counties from enacting and enforcing their own gun laws.
“One of the problems we have is, this state is a crazy gun state,” Kenney said.
Williams recited the names of four murder victims this year, accusing Kenney of trying to sound as if he’s accomplishing something.
“These are not drug dealers,” Williams said. “These are the names of people who have been murdered in Philadelphia.”
The candidates differed on what they believe a mayor can do to alleviate the city’s high poverty rate – currently 26 percent, the highest of the country’s largest cities.
Butkovitz said the city needs to employ more people at the port, citing a 2007 study that projected as many as 25,000 jobs could be created there.
“All you have to do is pass a urine and drug test, show up to work every day,” he said. “The laser focus of this city government should be in attracting the kind of jobs that match the type of people who have been locked out of the employment market.”
Kenney countered that under his administration, new cranes have gone up at the port, and that he is working to expand jobs there. But Kenney said his plan for reducing poverty is investing in education.
Williams said he would appoint a cabinet-level official charged with cutting the poverty rate by half.
“We are going to work with the private sector to create jobs,” he said. “What we won’t do is further tax poor people with the soda tax.”
There was one area where the three candidates found common ground: supporting Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” policy, which withholds from federal law enforcement agencies some information about undocumented people in city jails.
President Donald Trump recently threatened to bus people crossing the country’s border illegally to sanctuary cities. Butkovitz dismissed Trump’s talk as a “demagogue political move.” Williams called the president “a bully.”
Kenney said he thought Trump was bluffing.
“ I’m glad we agree on something,” Kenney added. “I didn’t think that was going to happen tonight.”
Williams waited until the debate was nearly half-over to note thank the hosts, including The Inquirer and AARP. He thanked Kenney “for even showing up tonight."
Kenney, knowing political history is on his side as he seeks a second term, has intentionally limited his joint appearances with the challengers. He skipped a KYW Newsradio debate last week.
This was the second and final joint appearance for the three Democrats. Republican Billy Ciancaglini, a defense attorney, is running unopposed in his party’s primary next week.
The challengers face an uphill battle. No incumbent mayor who has sought a second term has been denied since two terms were first authorized seven decades ago in the Home Rule Charter.
Following the debate, Butkovitz said he was pleased with his performance and thought Kenney’s momentum is slowing.
Williams, however, expressed disappointment in the sparring between Kenney and Butkovitz.
“I thought the bickering was embarrassing in front of voters who have one debate to see us perform,” Williams said. “Especially young voters, who already think we are out of touch with their lives.”
Kenney did not take questions.