John Street, uncensored: The former mayor on Michael Nutter’s leadership and Jim Kenney’s future (Q&A)

john street

John Street led Philadelphia as mayor from 2000 to 2008. He enacted the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, helped get abandoned cars off the street and was beloved by many people outside of Center City for his frequent visits into neighborhoods. He also had his office wiretapped by the FBI and was accused of having a corrupt administration. Now Street teaches at Temple University, just another anonymous professor to most students walking the campus, but a celebrity of sorts to the many employees who know and recognize him.

Billy Penn sat down for a conversation with Street about the soon-to-be-former mayor, the Democratic nominee for mayor and a number of other topics. Here’s our conversation, which was edited lightly for brevity and clarity:

BP: Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney got elected to council for the first time when you became council president. What was he like back then?

Jim Kenney is a very smart, very, very passionate person, and he cares about a lot. What a lot of people don’t understand is, in my first four years as Council president, Jim Kenney was like a go-to guy for me. It was only after Rendell’s first term and people started thinking that I might run for mayor, that [state] Senator [Vince] Fumo decided that people like Kenney and Frank DiCicco couldn’t be supportive of me anymore because he didn’t want to help me, because I wasn’t going to be his candidate for mayor.

Jim Kenney’s a very thoughtful person. It’s interesting because he is very passionate about stuff. Jim Kenney is one of those people who carries his feelings on his… what’s that expression?

Q: On his sleeve.

On his sleeve. Right. So he wasn’t a good liar in that way. If he felt it, you could see it all over his expression and for four years, my first four as Council president, Jim Kenney was one of my go-to guys. The Council president always chairs the Council Rules Committee. He chaired most of the meetings, because I would sit down and go over the agenda, and Jim Kenney chaired those meetings. He was like one of our guys, right? We were really close, and then Rendell people looked and said, ‘Oh my God, Rendell can’t run so we’re going to get a new mayor.’ I think some people thought he was going to be mayor for life.

So Fumo is saying, ‘well, we don’t want Street.’ He said, ‘we don’t want Street’ and so he basically pulled those guys off of me. Kenney, DiCicco, and a couple others. He wouldn’t let them be supportive of me. It was all politics, just all everyday politics. I said, ‘OK, I guess I got to reconstruct my core group.’ And I knew that those guys felt really bad about some of that stuff because the kind of stuff that I was doing and that they were doing…

Frank DiCicco said this to me, he said: ‘A lot of the stuff you’re doing down here, people really like. I can’t be against it.’ And he said not everybody understands it. People think your political family determines everything you do. He said, ‘I can’t be against some of this stuff, and some people don’t understand that.’

I spent more time in neighborhoods than probably my three predecessors combined because from April to October, a couple days a week I would organize all these walks. They didn’t always get publicized because I wouldn’t let TV cameras in. And I didn’t let TV cameras come because the moment a TV camera comes, it changes everything.

If you’re from the neighborhood, you want to see the mayor in the neighborhood. I mean, people think literally that [Mayor Michael] Nutter never goes to neighborhoods ever. And so Jim Kenney I think is a very thoughtful person. I think he has grown.

I hear a lot of people saying they remember when he first came to City Council and how impatient he was and he was a hothead and some of that’s true. I remember when I was quite a little disruptive myself. And he’s entitled to grow. We’ll see. He matters to the political process. He managed a campaign in a pretty exemplary fashion. None of the stuff that people used to say about him actually materialized. ‘Oh he’s a hothead, he can’t take criticism.’ It just didn’t happen that way. He was just about as even keeled as anybody could be.

BP: Speaking of being under pressure. Mayor Nutter has dealt with a lot lately, what do you think about how he’s dealt with others and with Council?

Mayor Nutter, he couldn’t get anyone to introduce his PGW bill. Not one. Not one out of 17. Let me tell you, I’ve watched a lot of mayors. If the mayor gets the support of the Council president, it’s hard not to get the votes. Here’s a guy who couldn’t get one vote. I mean, he couldn’t get a person to introduce a bill. I never saw that. I’ve watched City Council for 45 years and never saw that.

BP: Why do you think that is? That he struggled to garner support in Council?

First of all, it’s mind boggling because he spent 14 and a half years there. But you might be the mayor, but that doesn’t make you the boss. People always try to help the mayor a little bit. It’s what you do. He’s the mayor. So you try to help him.

So it got so bad that no one wanted to help him. Not anybody. And you have to work hard at that. You have to work really, really hard not to be able to get one out of 17. If somebody came to me and said ‘I’m the new mayor and I really don’t want any support from City Council, what should I do?’ I’d be like ‘what? well, you’re out of luck because one or two people are going to like what you do.’

For a while people just sort of resented him. Nutter has an attitude that most councilmen really don’t like. In my experience, he had this ‘my way or the highway’ approach to a lot of things. In politics, people have a lot of flexibility. They can do what they want to do. Half the reason they do stuff is because they like you. If they don’t like you, then they’ll try to do the thing that they think is right or that they think is politically expedient. And Nutter lost almost all of that. He just lost it very early. He lost almost all of it.

I never got the impression that he was really serious about the business of doing your Council politics. It’s an art form. It’s important. You can’t take it for granted. These people all have ideas about how things should go, and they’re respected. And I actually think, you can check with them, but I think they felt disrespected.

They didn’t feel like that the administration really cared about their views. And look, when you’re so low in esteem with that legislative body that you can’t get one person to introduce a signature piece of legislation, I don’t know how you do it.

BP: So then what’s the role of the Democratic machine in all this? You seem to think the machine, it’s not as sophisticated as people think. That it’s not a big deal.

I think in small districts, it can be a very big deal. In smaller, state representative districts.

BP: But as far as city politics?

The machine, I don’t think dominates like people think. I think the primary that just passed in 2015, I think was a little different. Allan Domb spent a lot of money, and it is speculated at least in some quarters, that he might have spent two million of his own money. So that’s an aberration.

Aside from that, I find it fascinating because we have a campaign finance law, a local law that some people have declared as wonderful. I don’t think it’s so wonderful. I can raise from that person over there, $2,400 a year. You challenge me, you only can raise from that same person $2,400 a year for one or two years. I can get it every year. It’s tailor-made for incumbents.

BP: What practical advice would you give a young person who wanted to run for office? Because it’s tough to run if you’re young. What are some things they should do to be successful as an outsider?

Well let’s talk about Feibush for a minute. Ori? Ori Feibush. When I first heard about him, I said ‘oh, he’s an interesting guy.’ I said to myself, here’s a guy who might be onto something. Because he’s decided that he didn’t like the way things were going in his neighborhood and his district.

Maybe he wasn’t the best candidate in that district. But he exercised a real serious appreciation for the fact that there is a political party, there are ward leaders, there are committeepeople. You want to have something to say about things going on in your neighborhood, you have to get involved in that process.

So if you’re talking about influencing things that happen in your neighborhood and in your city, people have to be active, and being active means more than going down to the local Starbucks and ordering a fancy latte and writing a tweet. What can you do in 140 characters? Although I’ve been reading that tweets could be bigger soon. Tweets could be bigger?

BP: Yeah, who knows.

There’s something fundamentally interesting about a tweet. It’s an art form. It really is an art form.

Anyway, there’s a different level of involvement. I teach this class about local government here [at Temple], and I talk about this all the time and people have to figure out what’s important to them. And they have to decide how they want to relate to the system. It’s not nearly as closed as people want to pretend that it is. People don’t know anything about it. Most ward leaders have young people coming in. They can’t find committeepeople to run.

So if I were talking to a bunch of young people, I’d tell them you need to get involved in the politics of the neighborhood. And you can do that by you can become a committee person or a ward leader or more of a community activist type. But you need to be involved in those processes.

I think some people want it to happen really fast and want it to be easy. And they need to have a different set of experiences. They need to know a little bit more.

[Last week] former Mayor [Wilson] Goode came to my class. He comes and he says, ‘I was born in South Carolina to a sharecropper family. I worked at someone else’s farm with my parents until I was 15 years old. I came to this city and I managed to graduate and I got engaged.’ So after he’s done, I say to people how likely is it that he would have been born in the south to sharecroppers, come north, get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree from Penn, a doctorate from some theological seminary and get involved in politics, create a movement, become the first African American managing director, become the first chairman of the PUC and become the first black mayor and create a nationally renowned organization that helps children?

You think you had it worse than he had it? I think young people have a — I don’t want to be misunderstood — but I think they almost feel entitled in a strange kind of way. I don’t think it’s all bad. I’m not trying to put anybody down, but this system rewards a lot of hard work. It appreciates hard work.

BP: What about young people who are discouraged? 

I hate it when people say the system is broke. I hate that. Because the system isn’t broke. Now is Donald Trump distorting the Republican Party? Is he distorting that? Well, yeah. But he’s entitled to have his opinion just like everybody else and he happens to have a lot of money. There are plenty of people who have more money than Donald Trump. They let him dominate the debate. I marvel at it. I call it the Donald and The Doctor. The Donald and the Doctor are leading.

But can you say the system is broke because of that? I don’t know how all those Republicans supporting him — how can we say they’re wrong? We can just say we disagree with them and we can say we hope that neither of those two people becomes the president. But I don’t know that we can say that because they emerged as these influences that the system is broke. I think we have probably the most secure and best political system I’ve heard of and I’ve been around. If Barack Obama can become the president of the United States and Jim Kenney can become the mayor, Darrell Clarke can become the council president, then I think there’s something to be said for that system. None of us had any political pedigree. We didn’t know anybody. 

Young people today are going to have to meet their challenge. They’re going to have to figure this out. It’s not like they can’t. Other people did. They did what they had to do when it was their time.

BP: Chaka Fattah has been in the news plenty since his indictment. What’s your read on that and his possible chances of running again? 

It’s really complicated. The charges aren’t complicated, but the underlying factual stuff is complicated. A person that’s been in public office for a long time and has done a lot of good, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to grant that person what everybody has in this country, and that’s the presumption of innocence. I think it’s awful there are people who have already been the judge, jury and executioner.

I’m not judging Congressman Fattah because I don’t have to. In fact the law says he is innocent until proven guilty by a jury of his peers, and I’m going to wait for that. And if he runs for re-election and he hasn’t had a trial, then I will not not support him because of an indictment.

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