Kenney unloved

South Phil­adelphia has its second may­or in my life­time. But there could not be two more dif­fer­ent people than Jim Ken­ney and Frank Rizzo. 


South Phil­adelphia has its second may­or in my life­time. But there could not be two more dif­fer­ent people than Jim Ken­ney and Frank Rizzo.  The di­vide between Ken­ney and Rizzo is as deep as that between Don­ald Trump and Barack Obama.  And like Obama and Trump, they stir the pot of con­tro­versy with a right­eous cer­tainty. Ken­ney’s roots in this area go deep­er than those of Rizzo who lived here only briefly.  But com­pared to Rizzo, Ken­ney is largely viewed without hon­or in South Phil­adelphia.  

Ken­ney’s crit­ics feel that he has be­trayed his roots.  They re­mem­ber when he was one of them. Jimmy is the old­est of four kids. A neigh­bor in the Whit­man sec­tion. The son of work­ing-class par­ents. Went to the neigh­bor­hood pa­ro­chi­al school with them. Smart enough to go to St. Joe’s Prep.  Be­came the first in his fam­ily to gradu­ate col­lege.  Marched as a Mum­mer.  

Un­like some of the area’s oth­er loc­al sons, he didn’t get elec­ted to City Coun­cil as the first step to­ward a pris­on sen­tence.  This area is for­giv­ing — make that too for­giv­ing — of its polit­ic­al sons who wind up serving jail time. We not only still hon­or some of our fallen, some­times we even re-elect them.  That wasn’t a con­cern with Jimmy. He was a bright light from the be­gin­ning. A straight ar­row. Didn’t get taken down by the Vince Fumo mess. 

I re­mem­ber a former ed­it­or of this news­pa­per telling me that she had in­ter­viewed two South Phil­adelphi­ans at that time who’d re­cently been elec­ted to City Coun­cil — Frank Di­Cicco and Jim Ken­ney. She was im­pressed with the in­tel­li­gence of both men.  Thought they were sev­er­al cuts above the kind of politi­cians who usu­ally came out of this area.  She was right.

As an at-large mem­ber of City Coun­cil, Ken­ney took a genu­ine in­terest in qual­ity-of-life is­sues. He was pas­sion­ate. Al­most ob­sess­ive in his be­lief that cit­izens have the right to be free to live de­cent lives. Stor­ies about Ken­ney’s ded­ic­a­tion to qual­ity of life for South Phil­adelphi­ans be­came le­gendary. He sup­posedly stopped pros­ti­tutes from shop­ping their wares down here. Kept them away from our neigh­bor­hoods.  

Here’s the rub. Ken­ney showed an in­terest in so­cially lib­er­al causes. No city of­fi­cial has been friend­li­er to the LGBT com­munity.  These are the kinds of causes that don’t es­pe­cially en­dear you around here.  But a lot of that was largely ig­nored by South Phil­adelphi­ans be­cause Ken­ney did the ne­ces­sary grunt work re­quired of a coun­cil­man.  Hell, be­ing a lib­er­al was just one of Jimmy’s “quirks.”  You could call his of­fice, and have a good chance of Ken­ney an­swer­ing his of­fice phone.  A lunch pail politi­cian.

When Ken­ney de­cided to run for May­or in 2015, the field was crowded. Jimmy was a long shot. But Coun­cil Pres­id­ent Dar­rell Clarke — likely the fa­vor­ite — de­cided not to run and his main op­pon­ent, An­thony Wil­li­ams, fizzled.  Ken­ney be­came the sur­prise Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee for may­or. As we all know, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee for may­or in Phil­adelphia is tan­tamount to win­ning the elec­tion.  But the sur­prise to most polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers was the way Ken­ney brought to­geth­er the dif­fer­ent ele­ments of the Demo­crat­ic Party — the uni­ons — the Cen­ter City lib­er­als — and all the fac­tions in between. The res­ult was a land­slide.

Ken­ney’s agenda has been am­bi­tious. That scared some of the con­ser­vat­ive me­dia in Phil­adelphia. He was com­pared to the lib­er­al may­or of New York Bill de Bla­sio, a fa­vor­ite tar­get of con­ser­vat­ives. Ken­ney lacked the right tem­pera­ment. Maybe even drank too much, they hin­ted. He was a loose can­non with a Twit­ter ac­count.  

As may­or, Ken­ney has shown none of these so-called per­son­al­ity flaws.  But policy-wise, the may­or has been the fiery lib­er­al they feared.  Even had a pub­lic spat with Arch­bish­op Chaput.    

Ken­ney has been a loc­al counter force to Don­ald Trump. He elim­in­ated the policy of ar­rest­ing kids — many of them minor­it­ies — for pos­sess­ing small amounts of marijuana and re­placed that pen­alty with fines.  Much to the chag­rin of the soda in­dustry, Ken­ney got his sug­ary drinks tax through City Coun­cil and in­to law. The tax will fund an am­bi­tious pre-K pro­gram and up­date re­cre­ation cen­ters and lib­rar­ies around the city.  Tax rev­en­ue so far has ex­ceeded pro­jec­tions, but the bever­age in­dustry is not go­ing quietly.  As ex­pec­ted, the tax is be­ing chal­lenged in the courts.  The in­dustry claims the tax is cost­ing the city jobs.  But per­haps even a big­ger firestorm is build­ing over Ken­ney’s in­sist­ence on des­ig­nat­ing Phil­adelphia as a sanc­tu­ary city.

Crit­ics claim that Ken­ney’s policy has al­lowed dan­ger­ous crim­in­als to go free, al­though the city’s ex­ist­ing policy is not to re­lease con­victed felons. This colum­nist wor­ries that non-com­pli­ance by loc­al gov­ern­ments with fed­er­al law sets a bad pre­ced­ent and is eas­ily ab­used.  But now Pres­id­ent Trump has ex­pan­ded fed­er­al en­force­ment of im­mig­ra­tion laws.  Whole­sale de­port­a­tion seems his goal. Sep­ar­a­tion of moth­ers from their chil­dren when ap­pre­hen­ded at the bor­der is be­ing con­sidered. Hu­man­ity seems to cry out for res­ist­ance.  The Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion is prom­ising to with­hold fed­er­al funds from sanc­tu­ary cit­ies such as Phil­adelphia. So far Ken­ney has stood firm.  

Ken­ney’s causes are noble, but they don’t res­on­ate in South Phil­adelphia. This is still Rizzo coun­try. Trump coun­try. And by the way, have you turned your back on the Mum­mers, Jimmy?

Jim Ken­ney may well be­come a great may­or. But they won’t be nam­ing any streets for him around here.  Maybe that’s our fault. 


You can reach at