Debate heats up on job creation

Republican candidate Melissa Murray Bailey and Democrat Jim Kenney during their Mayoral Debate at Temple University, Monday, October 19, 2015. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)

DEMOCRAT Jim Kenney and Republican Melissa Murray Bailey last night finally mixed it up at their third mayoral debate before the Nov. 3 general election, responding to the campaign's thus far all-too-rare challenges to their key talking points.

Temple University's historic Baptist Temple played host to the debate, organized by Philly.com's The Next Mayor project.

Kenney was hit with some of the strongest inquiries yet about his oft-mentioned proposal to expand South Philly's container terminals. Moderator Diane Mastrull, an Inquirer reporter, pressed the former councilman on the project's cost, which some estimates have placed in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bailey also took a strong shot at the plan, which hinges in part on attracting larger freighters that will begin to pass through an expanded Panama Canal next year. But Bailey said that the Delaware Memorial Bridge, south of Wilmington, is too low to accommodate ships of that size.

"I'm all for creating jobs, but ports are not where we should be investing," Bailey said.

The bridge has about 170 feet of clearance, whereas the new canal is built to allow ships that need 190 feet or more. Kenney said that congestion at big ports like Norfolk and New York presented opportunities for Philly.

Kenney gave a glancing blow to Bailey's jobs proposal, which hinges on luring international companies to open regional headquarters in Philadelphia.

He said that one doesn't "have to travel to Timbuktu" to find jobs - and recommended that city officials instead court suburban corporations that employ Philadelphians.

Bailey replied that she'd already established business connections in places like Timbuktu in her career as an international business consultant.

Timbuktu is a city in the West African nation of Mali.

The candidates also differed on Comcast's impact on the business landscape.

"Because we have a large singular company . . . Comcast holds all the cards in Philly, we need to attract more corporations, and that starts with our tax structure," Bailey said.

Kenney took a softer line, saying that he wanted to work with a successful high-paying company that had chosen to make a future in Philadelphia.

"I'm not here to vilify Comcast," he said.

However, Kenney was adamant that Comcast needed to do more to bring high-speed Internet to low-income residents, saying that its Internet Essentials program was not sufficient.

But the biggest gulf between the candidates had nothing to do with Philadelphia. Asked about their takes on the presidential race, Kenney wouldn't name a favorite Democrat, but called the Republican debates "sophomore city."

Bailey stuck with her party. She praised the "diversity" of Republican candidates, saying the Democratic debate was "full of old white people."

Kenney quipped: "I am offended by that."

On Twitter: @rw_briggs