You’ll hear a lot about Jim Kenney’s long history on City Council — but you might not know he was the chief of staff for a convicted felon, and he owes his political start to that corrupt politician.
Kenney cut his teeth as a young politician under Vince Fumo. Fumo ruled Philadelphia, absolutely ruled it, until a federal indictment in 2007. He was later convicted on 137 counts of corruption. Feds found that he had defrauded the Senate and charities of at least $3.5 million by having Senate employees do things like take care of his farm and refurbish his mansion and spy on an ex-lover. He was also found to have illegally spent funds from his nonprofit Citizens’ Alliance after he convinced PECO to donate $17 million to it. Like his predecessor in the state Senate 1st District, Buddy Cianfrani, Fumo went to prison. He served about four years and was released in 2013.
Kenney has never been linked to any wrongdoing with regards to Fumo’s troubles, but he spent more than a decade of his formative political years learning from him. And he’ll always be connected to Fumo and the powerful machine Fumo ran.
How powerful was Vince Fumo?
It’s almost hard to describe. No one in Philly politics really compares these days. As far as titles, Fumo at his height was merely a state senator in the 1st District and the Democratic leader of the state appropriations committee. But for three decades he was much more, a political kingpin not only in Philadelphia but throughout the state. He made tons of money as the leader of First Penn Bank, had numerous political allies and was part of so many boards that his power extended into the corporate and nonprofit realm. Shortly after Fumo was convicted in 2009, Dave Davies wrote for the Daily News that the senator had a hand either directly or indirectly in “how your bridge tolls were spent, who set your property taxes or ran Fairmount Park, who sat in judgment on your civil and criminal disputes.” While those , Fumo could choose to influence dealings on a small scale, too. From an Inquirer profile in 1991:
- When a city agency blocked his plan to build a mansion, he effectively took over the agency.
- When a staff aide wanted a parking spot near her home, Fumo conjured one up — a garage, actually, and a brand-new apartment building on top of it.
- When he wanted to know what the city Republican boss was up to as chairman of a $230 million charity, Fumo got himself appointed to the board to find out.
Fumo’s disciples were called “Fumocrats.”
Jim Kenney was a Fumocrat?
Yep. He started working for Fumo in 1979, when he would have been in his early 20s. In the ’80s, he worked as an aide and spokesman for Fumo before rising to become his chief of staff. Then in 1991, Kenney decided to run for City Council.
Did Fumo help him out?
You betcha. Early on in the race, then-Councilman Angel Ortiz accused Fumo of persuading another Hispanic candidate to run as a way to help Kenney by splitting the Hispanic vote. Kenney and Ortiz ended up both getting endorsed by the Philly Democratic Party, so the complaint kind of went away.
Kenney went on to finish first out 25 candidates in that at-large Council race. Fumo didn’t bother to hide his influence on the election, saying backing Kenney was part of his agenda. Kenney denied that he would be Fumo’s puppet, citing an early ’90s example of his work for the Philadelphia Port Authority. One political source at the time, however, said of Kenney, “If (Fumo) needs something done on Council, all he’ll have to do is pick up the phone. His guy is there. It’s another part of his fiefdom.”
Kenney wasn’t the only councilman during this era closely linked with Fumo. Frank DiCicco and Anna Verna were Fumocrats, and Democratic party chairman Bob Brady also had close ties with him.
So when and how did Fumo get in trouble?
The indictment came down in 2007 (He had also been convicted for mail fraud in 1980 but that conviction was overturned). As mentioned above, he basically had his employees doing his personal chores instead of actual, you know, senate work. And he spent some of the money Citizens’ Alliance got in a shakedown of Peco for his own benefit.
It gets crazier, though. One of the senate employees he used as a personal flunkie was his daughter’s boyfriend and later husband, Christian Marrone. In an excellent Philly Mag article, Jason Fagone illustrates the strained relationship and how Fumo’s family and associates believed Marrone likely went to the Feds and fueled the investigation in its early stages.
Yeah, associates such as Jim Kenney. Kenney said of Marrone, “I think Christian Marrone clearly showed some disloyalty.”
Was Kenney linked to anything with Fumo’s troubles?
Nope. Feds subpoenaed Kenney during the investigation, and he testified but was not linked to any wrongdoing. That year, Kenney finished first in the at-large Democratic primary.
He must have tried to distance himself from Fumo?
Yeah. Around the time the charges were imminent but not official, Kenney in February 2007 attempted to distance himself publicly from Fumo, saying to the Inquirer, “At some point, this 48-year-old, four-term incumbent has to be viewed as an individual. I’ve got a body of work I’m proud to take to the voters.”
But about the same time Kenney made those comments, he was busy proposing legislation to remove the limits on political contributions if a candidate put in more than $2 million of his or her own money into the race, as Tom Knox had done at the time while running for mayor. The caps had recently been set, and almost nobody wanted this done. Kenney ended up scrapping the proposed bill until after the primary. Guess who wanted the limits removed, though? Fumo. He had handpicked Brady to run for mayor that year, and Knox was bound to take away thousands of Brady votes by injecting his own millions into the race.
One challenger for Council that year, Damon Roberts, told the Daily News of Kenney’s proposal, “We want democracy. We don’t want Fumocracy.”
What did Kenney say about Fumo in the run-up to this election?
Surprisingly, he wasn’t asked about Fumo all that much. Kenney told Philly Mag of Fumo, “The mentorship was effective. I became a very good legislator and a very good public servant, but I haven’t worked for the man for 24 years and we have not spoken in close to seven, and that’s not going to change. The patching up of relationships does not include that one.”
And what did Fumo say about Kenney?
Nothing specific, though he made a Facebook post saying he’d rather have someone with the backing of four billionaires (Tony Williams) than union boss Johnny “Doc” Dougherty. Fumo later said he wouldn’t endorse anyone.
Johnny Doc — didn’t he help Kenney win the Democratic mayoral race?
Yeah, they’re basically “caught in a bad bromance.”