How Jim Kenney won his very first election: ‘It had nothing to do with me’

Vince Fumo had a clear goal in the 1991 Philadelphia municipal elections. In the past, the man described as Philly’s foremost political power broker had advocated for candidates in multiple races, but for this year he really had one person he wanted to see elected:

A young man named Jim Kenney.

Kenney had worked for Fumo since his junior year of college. This was his first election. He would go on to win a seat as an at-large City Councilman, gaining more votes than any of the other candidates in the Democratic primary, and he did so with the backing of Fumo and a little bit of gamesmanship.

In fact, Fumo was accused of setting up a scheme to split the Hispanic vote so incumbent Councilman Angel Ortiz would struggle and Kenney would stand a better chance for election.

They were trying to get me out,” Ortiz said. “I like Jim. But at that time he really was with Vince.”

The clear support from Fumo and his tactics in the race made other council members wary for his first few years on Council, but not forever. Ortiz grew to like Kenney and see him as a liberal voice — and sooner than he thought.  

Ortiz was first elected to City Council in 1983. By 1991, he knew he could expect Fumo to try and pull some kind of stunt to reduce his chances at election.  

The reason for Fumo’s antagonism boiled down a kind of political proxy war between him and then-congressman Bill Gray. Gray’s political connections on Council included Ortiz, Marian Tasco and Augusta Clark. They were the liberal Democrats. Fumo and his charges, including Frank DiCicco, Anna Verna and Kenney, were more conservative. They represented old South Philly’s Irish and Italian rowhouse population.

Vince Fumo and Bill Gray were sort of the poles of the Democratic party,” Ortiz said.

A couple of months before the 1991 primary, no-name candidate Carlos Acosta declared he would be running for an at-large spot on Council. His announcement came shortly after state Rep. Ralph Acosta, not a no-name candidate, expressed intentions to run for an at-large spot but decided to withdraw.

Ortiz and his supporters saw the decision as being fueled by Fumo. If a guy named Acosta was on the ballot, the Hispanic community might be divided and give Kenney a better chance to win one of the five at-large seats.

“They were always trying to get some Puerto Rican to run against me,” he said. “I took it in stride. I stuck with the course.”

At the time, Kenney and Fumo both denied they were pulling any strings. Debbie Mahler, who worked as an organizer on Kenney’s 1991, said there was no plan to go after Ortiz or anyone. She said Kenney ran a typical campaign, visiting many different Philadelphia neighborhoods, and caught a break — as did the other candidates — when Fran Rafferty made disparaging remarks about the LGBT community. 

Kenney reflected in 1999 to the Inquirer about his first election: “In 1991, my first time, I came in first in the Democratic primary and it had nothing to do with me. It was all the political deals, getting the money and, without a doubt, the support and help of Vince Fumo and Bob Brady. That’s the way it is.”

The Acosta-Acosta move was forgotten when Ortiz won re-election. He would now be serving on Council with a political antagonist. And early on, tempers did flare. Ortiz remembers a bill introduced by Michael Nutter to create a Civilian Review Board for the police department. A watered-down version of the original bill ended up getting passed. Kenney was staunchly against it, calling Ortiz, Tasco, Clark and others the civil liberties group or the lefties, as Ortiz remembers. 

Tasco describes a young Kenney as “kind of cocky.”

“But certainly he was open,” she said.  

Tasco said Clark especially would talk to Kenney before hearings, and he would listen. His association with Fumo, Tasco believes, was overrated even back then. Though Fumo may have backed him during elections, it didn’t mean Kenney let Fumo influence his decisions on Council. Tasco started her political career under Gray and was always penciled in as being part of his camp, just as Kenney was with Fumo.  

You have friends, you have relationships. They don’t disappear,” Tasco said. “They are there for you. So I kind of resent that attitude. Let me say this to you. Every candidate that ran for anything in this city went through Vince Fumo and Buddy Cianfrani. His boss helped him get elected. This is politics.”

Adds Ortiz: “Vince and him were really close, very close friends. They had shared visions of government and I think they would discuss issues in City Council and those provisions along those lines and so on….Jimmy became his own person. And so it’s part and parcel of the growing process. I think 1991 you get elected and you’re looking at trying to find your way and find your voice. And I think after a few years Jimmy found his voice.”

Ortiz was one of the first people on Council to advocate for gay rights. In 1988, he introduced legislation that would have started a Gay Pride Month in Philadelphia. But only he, Tasco, Clark, another political ally George Burrell and Joan Specter voted for it (a resolution for a Gay Pride Month did pass the next year).

When Kenney first won election, Ortiz never would have pegged him to be the type to continue the gay rights movement, but that’s what happened. In the mid-90s, Kenney began aligning with gay leaders in the city and stood up for them.

“When we brought up the issue of gay rights and so on he really came on board,” Ortiz said. “He really took on the hierarchies of the city and that cemented our friendship.  It was like at that point he had sort of crossed the Rubicon and there was no turning back.”

The changes from Kenney’s early days were apparent this spring. Tasco endorsed him for mayor and it helped lead to broad support for him in the Northwest that was key for him winning this spring’s primary election.

Ortiz didn’t endorse Kenney. His friend Nelson Diaz was running, and Ortiz wanted to support the city’s first Latino candidate for mayor. But he still thinks highly of the man he once saw as his opposite.

“Jimmy turned into a good friend, somebody that I can call,” Ortiz said, “and that I think is going to be a very good mayor.”

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