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Watching, waiting, and finally winning (thanks, unions!): How Jim Kenney became the Democrats’ choice for mayor (Analysis)

Months ago as other candidates jumped into the mayor’s race with the hopes of gaining public recognition, funding and endorsements, Jim Kenney kept silent about his decision. They made news for announcing mayoral runs; he made news for calling New Jersey governor and Dallas Cowboys fan Chris Christie a “fat assed creep” on Twitter.

And this waiting game ended up being the winning strategy. Kenney didn’t confirm he would enter the race until weeks or months after the other five candidates talked about it. Yet as the primary election comes to an end, he’s on top, having carried endorsements and support from unions, black leaders, women, the gay community and police to a victory.

There’s no doubt Kenney needed the union backing. Before he declared his intentions to run, Darrell Clarke was considered the union guy. Clarke had even held an event with Johnny “Doc” Dougherty last June at which Dougherty gave him an unofficial mayoral endorsement.

Kenney would’ve likely had no chance to win with Clarke in the race. Without Clarke, Kenney, with his background as a lifelong politician and South Philly Irishman, immediately became a prime candidate to garner the union love. For years, he got it as a councilman. Among the unions that backed him this time: teachers, Johnny Doc’s Local 98 electric workers, police, firefighters and nurses. Unions wanted Kenny so much more than any other candidate that one union, the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, endorsed him before he officially declared.    

Assistance came from endorsements, as well as money. Union-backed PACs Building a Better PA Fund and Forward Philadelphia spent more than $2.1 million this race in support of him as of May 8. (Kenney’s campaign only spent about half that much).

Unions also displayed their support on Election Day. At Famous 4th Street Deli, one union — likely Local 98 — waved around cardboard Kenney heads on sticks.

How badly did he need these endorsements? Badly. As Kenney got more progressive, his popularity dropped. In 2007, he went from having the most votes of any Democratic at-large Council candidate to having the fifth-most and barely getting re-elected in 2011.

Of course, the love from progressives helped. The environmentally-minded Sierra Club supported him, as did the LGBT Community (Kenney held a rally in March at Woody’s).

He also got the backing of politicians like Ken Trujillo and Clarke, as well as black leaders in the Black Clergy and Northwest Coalition. In the past, mayors have mostly been picked on racial lines. These endorsements registered as surprise, major victories for Kenney, and given the numbers Tuesday, it seems many from the black community agreed that Kenney was the right man.

Endorsements aren’t always an indicator of a winner, but they were this time. Tony Williams and Lynne Abraham, the candidates who seemed to have a chance early in the race, fell behind by Election Day. Kenney ended up with 45 endorsements, per WHYY’s endorsement tracker. Williams got 23. Abraham got one. Everyone seemed to prefer Kenney — even Philly Jesus pulled out a last-minute endorsement for Kenney.

The head start of Williams and Abraham, announcing their campaigns in November, didn’t matter. Kenney waited, got everything he needed from unions and beyond and was able to run away with the election.

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