This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
No one ever said being mayor of Philadelphia would be easy. America’s fifth-largest city suffers a poverty rate of over 25 percent, $5.7 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and a school system ravaged by austerity and segregation.
The new mayor, Jim Kenney, was elected last year in a landslide by knitting together a disparate coalition and promising big changes ahead. The question is whether a city like Philadelphia, with all its lurking fiscal issues and petty political rivalries, is willing to accommodate a mayor with big policy ambitions.
Kenney’s election last year was hailed as the latest in a string of progressive urban electoral victories. Bill de Blasio’s 2013 win in New York was the most notable, but that year also saw liberal Democratic politicians take power in Los Angeles (Eric Garcetti), Seattle (Ed Murray), Boston (Marty Walsh), Minneapolis (Betsy Hodges), and Pittsburgh (Bill Peduto)—new leaders hailed as potential pioneers of progressive policy.
In some ways, Kenney fits this narrative. Although he started his political life as a conservative South Philly row house rabble-rouser, he evolved over the course of 23 years on city council to champion a range of progressive policies on immigrant rights, LGBT equality, and, most notably, the decriminalization of marijuana.
“I’ve always characterized my work as being about equity and fairness,” says Kenney, sitting in his City Hall offices. “I don’t like when people are marginalized, or boxed into some category that allows people to discriminate against them in society. I want to give people the opportunity to meet their potential. We all have a responsibility for each other.”
During his campaign, Kenney said all the right things about creating bike lanes and defending public schools. He promised to act on an essential issue motivating the Black Lives Matter movement, saying, “If [elected] mayor, ‘stop and frisk’ will end in Philadelphia, no question.” Kenney also promised universal pre-K, saying it would be funded not by taxes but by voluntary contributions from nonprofits and by a variety of city sources, such as the proceeds from selling commercial tax liens (Pennsylvania’s uniformity clause doesn’t allow for a tax targeted to the rich—not that Philly has that many wealthy people to tax).
Kenney coasted to victory in the Democratic primary (the only election that matters in Philadelphia), winning endorsements from the police union, young urbanist groups, some Hispanic leaders, the building trades, and a group of influential middle-class African American leaders despite the presence of numerous black candidates. No one had won by such a sweeping margin since the 1970s. On his first day in office, Kenney made Philadelphia a Sanctuary City again, disengaging the local law enforcement apparatus from cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
In his March budget address, the new mayor proposed a new way to pay for pre-K: a three-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages. Kenney said the levy could bring in $400 million over five years. More than half would be spent for universal pre-K programs, the rest going to parks and other worthy causes.
Kenney counted on his close relationships with political players to get his agenda enacted. But that strategy is fraught with complication, and peril, because Philadelphia’s power structure is more Democratic than liberal. In many ways, it is a throwback to an older era of urban regimes. The city’s politics are very insular and often defined by crude racial appeals, petty corruption, and a patchwork of machines riven by factional rivalries.
Kenney came up in this environment—his political mentor, former state senator Vince Fumo, was convicted on 137 counts of corruption in 2009. It’s a style of politics that can easily undermine an ambitious agenda, so Kenney will have to work overtime to appease enough of the local players to get things done. “Big tents get circus-y,” Kenney notes.
Nonetheless, much of the mayor’s coalition lined up behind him on the sugary-drink proposal, even as significant fissures opened up when the powerful city council president, Darrell Clarke, attacked the proposal as “ridiculous.” But controversy was inevitable. Kenney’s predecessor, Michael Nutter, proposed a similar levy twice, but his proposals focused on the health benefits of drinking less soda. Kenney voted it down both times, as did a majority of his council colleagues.
“Mayor Nutter had a difficult relationship [with council], but Mayor Kenney is still in the honeymoon phase and people want to help him,” Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political consultant, said in April. Ceisler was orchestrating the campaign against the mayor’s tax proposal, just as he did during the last two attempts to enact such a levy. “The way the issue is being presented is different. For Mayor Kenney it’s not that he’s a zealot about a tax on sugary drinks, but he is a zealot for trying to find revenue for his programs.”
The opposition of the soda industry and the Teamsters who drive its delivery trucks came as no surprise. But many progressive city leaders are not thrilled by a tax they see as regressive, even if they are excited about the programs it is meant to pay for. Three councilmembers quickly declared their opposition to it, another proposed a container tax instead, and Clarke has proposed his own version, which would be much smaller, with reduced funding for pre-K. Even Bernie Sanders weighed in against the tax, calling it a “regressive grocery tax,” and recommended taxing the rich to pay for the desired policies instead.
“Bernie Sanders doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” says Kenney. “If he’d done his homework, he’d know we have a uniformity clause in Pennsylvania, so we can’t charge rich people more than poor. Wage taxes are regressive. This is a tax that people choose to pay if they buy the product.”
Even as Kenney distanced his proposal from Nutter’s, there are other contrasts between them that are less flattering. Philadelphia’s municipal bureaucracy has a deserved reputation for opacity, inefficiency, and patronage. Nutter did much to change that, conducting national searches for appointees and staffing offices like the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) and the Office of Transportation and Utilities with talented young professionals.
But under Kenney, old-school appointees have been instated in many of these positions, disappointing his young urbanist enthusiasts. A parade of talented staffers have been exiting the OIT because of what they described as a stultifying new work environment under an old municipal hand. The Zoning Board of Adjustment is now helmed by a South Philly community leader who also happens to be the chiropractor for John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the powerful business manager of Electricians Union Local 98 and one of Kenney’s most important supporters.
On Kenney’s left flank is another constituency he really can’t afford to anger. Philadelphia is a majority–African American city, and the police department’s relationship with the black neighborhoods is fraught, to put it mildly. Since taking office, Kenney has issued more-nuanced statements on stop and frisk and no longer insists that it be ended. “It’s a media term being used around the country, but it was never formal policy in Philly,” says Kenney. “Our effort is to make pedestrian stops constitutional, reasonable, and respectful.”
This evolution of his rhetoric has already resulted in a heated town hall with Black Lives Matter activists and discomfiture among some civil-rights and neighborhood groups.
“He’s backtracked off of stop and frisk and that’s very disturbing to many in the African American community,” says Reverend Gregory Holston, senior pastor of New Vision United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia and leader of the community-organizing group POWER. “I still sincerely think he’s a good man. But he’s failed to understand how deeply painful the issue of stop and frisk is and that it could swallow up everything else he’s trying to do if he doesn’t get it right.”
There are other potential cleavages as well. Kenney enjoys close ties with the city’s powerful building trades unions, which were 76 percent white in 2012 in a city where only 41 percent of the population is white. (The numbers are even more dramatic when the Laborers union, which is majority people of color, isn’t considered.) Kenney claims his strong relationships with the trades can help bring diversity to their ranks—and that his $400 million soda tax–funded policy will bring a lot of construction work—but these unions have been resisting such calls since World War II.
If the fissures in Kenney’s coalition are already evident, they were also inevitable. No one could keep that many interests happy while governing a city as famously fractious and money-strapped as Philadelphia. His aggressive opening gambit with the soda tax seems to have worked, and could serve to keep his alliances knit together. If it doesn’t, well, Kenney wouldn’t be the first to have his dreams dashed by a city, and a political culture, that isn’t known for thinking big.
This story has been updated for accuracy.