As it prepares to choose its next mayor, Philadelphia is on a roll. Crime and unemployment are down. Center City is undergoing a revival that is spreading to the neighborhoods. Residents new and old are living in a city that is cleaner, greener, and more enjoyable than it has been in years.
But Philadelphia still struggles with the highest poverty rate among the nation's 10 biggest cities, epidemic gun and drug violence, a pension liability threatening to unravel city finances, growth-killing business and wage taxes, and egregiously underfunded, underperforming schools.
By convincingly winning a competitive race for the Democratic nomination for mayor in the spring, Jim Kenney became the heavy favorite in Tuesday's general election. Smart, compassionate, and up for a fight, the longtime city councilman reflects Philadelphia's personality. With a deep understanding of city government and an openness to creative ideas, Kenney, 57, is well-equipped to govern.
His Republican opponent, Melissa Murray Bailey, has shown a grasp of the issues and offered solid proposals on policing and literacy. But Bailey, 36, an executive at a consulting firm, lacks extensive knowledge of local government as well as the political seasoning a mayor needs. She would be a high-caliber candidate for plenty of offices other than chief executive of the nation's fifth-largest city.
Kenney's impressive primary victory was built on a diverse coalition that mirrors the city he wants to lead. An Irish Catholic mummer from tradition-steeped South Philly, he fought as a councilman for equal treatment regardless of sexual orientation when the cause was not as popular. He has shown similar humanity toward immigrants by defending "sanctuary city" policies that have come under fire. And in the face of resistance from the mayor and police commissioner, he successfully pushed a marijuana decriminalization measure that is preventing thousands of costly, needlessly harmful arrests a year that disproportionately affected the city's minorities.
As a mayoral candidate, Kenney has proposed universal prekindergarten to help Philadelphians get the skills they need and reduce the city's 26 percent poverty rate. He also wants to ease prisoner reentry and expand the port and energy industry to boost employment.
Kenney hopes to use the budget process to force city departments to rethink their priorities and structures. But his plans to streamline business taxes and reduce the wage tax seem shallow, and his proposal to sell tax liens could fail. Nor has he adequately explained how he would shrink the massive unfunded pension liability or rein in pension costs, a crucial issue that should be negotiated with the unions early in his term.
Kenney promises to appoint an engineer to head the troubled Department of Licenses and Inspections. In choosing a new police commissioner, he would have to ensure that the insider candidate he favors can continue the work of retiring Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has gone after dirty cops and used technology to target high-crime areas.
Ties that bind
Kenney is a son of this city who could use his relationships to broker compromises with unions and businesses. His experience working for former State Sen. Vincent Fumo, a skilled deal-maker before he was convicted on corruption charges, could help him bargain with Harrisburg for school aid and more. In particular, Kenney is positioned to have a productive relationship with City Council, which has been an immovable obstacle to important parts of Mayor Nutter's agenda. But Kenney would also have to stand up to Council, especially its obstructionist approach to land use.
Kenney's relationships also lead to the greatest reservations about his candidacy. The deep pockets behind him include the decrepit Democratic machine that has produced ticket-fixing traffic judges and cash-pocketing legislators. Kenney must also prove his independence from labor unions that don't always share the city's interests, from the carpenters whose thuggish tactics cost the Convention Center business to a police union that protects corrupt cops.
Kenney has promised to maintain the higher ethical and professional standards that are perhaps Nutter's foremost legacy. He points out that he was independent enough to be the only Council member who voted against the political money grab known as DROP. The city would benefit from more such moments.
Kenney tends to speak his mind, sometimes too clearly for his campaign handlers. He should continue to do so when the campaign is over. While his temper has often gotten away from him, his genuineness is a strength.