We’re one week away from Election Day and barring some type of Richardson Dilworth miracle from candidates like Jim Foster or Melissa Murray Bailey, Jim Kenney will be Philadelphia’s next mayor.
As a councilman for nearly 24 years, he made his name by focusing on LGBT issues and recently by pushed for the decriminalization of marijuana. He also once said he only got elected to Council the first time, in 1991, because of political deals and Democratic city committee leader Bob Brady and then state-senator Vince Fumo. To win this election, he earned key assistance from the union maven Johnny Doc.
Kenney met with Billy Penn in his office, and we talked about Johnny Doc, unions, whether he’s as fun as he used to be, his goal of focusing on all of Philly’s zip codes and patronage. We talked a lot about patronage.
Here’s our conversation, which was edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
After the spring election, national media started characterizing your victory and yourself as a sign of a Democratic shift to the left, sort of saying you were Philly’s Bill DeBlasio. Is that fair?
I don’t want to be anybody’s template. There’s certain things in the city of Philadelphia that are different than New York and some the same. My position is always try to be one of fairness and common sense. If fairness and common sense makes me more liberal or left than not then that’s fine. I mean, I just try to be a decent and fair person. And decency and fairness sometimes means understanding immigration and immigrants’ problems. It means that recognizing being arrested for a small amount of marijuana shouldn’t be a cross to bear for the rest of your life when it comes to employment. And if that makes me liberal yeah I guess I am.
Again back to the night of the election in the spring. It was reported you spoke to George Norcross. Why?
Because he asked to meet, and he’s a leader in the region, a businessperson. There were other people there. He just seemed to be the one who got the face time or the profile. There were other business folks I met — a quick congratulations, look forward to working with you — and then out the door.
With Norcross, special interest groups…
Define special interest groups
Unions, groups like that, Johnny Dougherty as well.
People who collectively bargain for their wages? As is constitutionally allowed.
Yeah. You’ve gotten a lot of help from those groups. How can you convince people who want to vote for you that you won’t be beholden to them?
Well I’m beholden to the citizens of Philadelphia and some of those folks happen to be citizens of Philadelphia. One of my opponents had the support of suburban multi-billionaire hedge fund guys. I’d rather be with the labor unions than the hedge fund guys any day.
Look, I have 40 years or so in politics and government and almost 24 years in public office. I have a record. People know who I am. They know I’m not afraid of taking on difficult issues, like LGBT rights and transgender health benefits for our employees and marijuana decriminalization. So you’d think people would try to profile me as what I stand for.
So it’s not beholden. I have the ability to say no when it’s not in the best interest of the city or the citizens. And I also have the ability to work with those unions and when I don’t necessarily agree with their tactics, have the ability to talk to them in person and privately and try to reason.
With Johnny Doc, most of your career you were not political allies with him.
No we were enemies (laughter). It wasn’t fun.
So how did you go about starting this relationship with him?
Because you realize in life you get more done by a cooperative attitude than you do by fighting. And the fighting drains your resources and drains your energy and makes you angry all the time. Sometimes you have to let things go.
Did you approach him or vice versa?
I don’t even remember. You have to remember we have a long history. We lived around the corner from each other. Our parents were social friends before they were married. My father is his sister’s godfather. I think our division, our feud came about as supporting other people. I worked for (Vince) Fumo at the time, and he was Doc’s enemy. And he supported John Street, and Street and I didn’t get along. We realized you’re alive only so long in life and the older you get the more tiring it is to have those fights — so just try to harness each other’s resources and intellect and move things forward.
How vital was it to have him?
I had not only him. You look at all the labor support I received, his was just a part of it. I had the service unions. I had the teachers.
Yeah but he has not only his own union but he helps organize others.
Well the carpenters aren’t too thrilled with him, and they supported somebody else. Look, in 2007, when I ran for re-election I was the only Council member who voted against D.R.O.P. I didn’t get the endorsement that year of the firefighters union, which is my father’s union. He wanted to quit his union because they wouldn’t endorse me. I almost lost. I won by 1,600 votes. It was the closest election I ever had. I thought what I did was the right thing — vote against D.R.O.P. And that was as anti-union as much as anything I’ve ever voted on. But I thought it wasn’t right for employees to get a benefit paid for by taxpayers at a time when the economy was so bad that their own 401(k)’s and pensions were imploding.
When it comes to kowtowing or carrying the water for the unions, there’s times when I think they’re wrong. And I vote that way.
If you could only convince people to vote for you based on one thing you’ve done, what would you tell them?
I don’t want to point to one thing like that’s the only thing. So I think it’s my general policy, legislation and public service around inclusion and participation of everyone. That’s going to be the hallmark of this administration. No zip code is going unnoticed or untended to, and your zip code should not determine the possibility of meeting your potential. And right now it does.
On a similar topic, Mayor Michael Nutter has talked often about making Philly a global city. How do you balance that goal with taking care of everyone in every zip code?
You do that by providing pre-K for every 3, 4-year-old in the city. You need to expand the opportunities for industrial style jobs like the Port of Philadelphia and distribution warehousing and the like. You need to continue to expand opportunities for young people within the construction trades, which I know I have the ability to do.
Also, still dealing with your meds, eds and, high tech, biotech and all the things going on at the Navy Yard, the plans for dealing with Market Street from 18th to 30th, Drexel, Comcast, Independence Blue Cross. There’s a lot of innovation going on out there. But you still have to have people who don’t have a college degree working at a job that pays more than $10 an hour.
You said in July to Philly Mag that patronage has its place. What place will it have in your administration if you’re elected?
Define your view of patronage.
Giving jobs to the people who are politically-connected and have maybe been working in politics many years.
First of all the majority of the government is civil service so there’s very little place for it. There’s places like the register of wills office, which has been written about. And I will tell you that that office works about as good or better than any other office in the city of Philadelphia. And it’s all patronage.
I’m not going to go about reversing civil service regulations or going back to the bad old days of knowing your ward leader is going to become a police officer. That’s never coming back and thankfully so. But there are areas. All city council employees are patronage employees. They work at the pleasure of their employer. The courts are another area where there’s lots of opportunity for people to work but once they get in there they have to give up politics. So that’s a double-edged sword for anybody connected politically.
I don’t look to expand it. I think in the register of wills office is a good example of where it really works. They are people who care about people, and they’re not having a bad attitude of “I can’t be fired, so I’m going to treat people disrespectfully.”
Young people hear the word patronage and if they read the register of wills story they’re probably a little turned off. Donatucci said in there if I want to hire new people I’ll call Bob Brady. What do you say to young people about that?
I don’t know (how many work) in the Register of Wills office. But it’s not hundreds and hundreds of people.
I think it’s something like 70 (Ed.’s note: It’s 63 on payroll).
And I don’t think many college graduates who are coming out of college, and…
Well not that office specifically, but the overall thought of patronage.
Highlighting Ron Donatucci’s 70 employees who happen to be patronage is not emblematic of the entire government. There’s all kinds of patronage in the world. Your uncle is a professor at a university, so he gets you a chance to get in. Or your brother-in-law works at a company, and he gets you in the door at an entry-level position. You have your mom and dad or grandparents who have some connection and they open the door for you. Basically opening a door for a young person is a form of patronage, but it doesn’t make it corrupt.
What advice would give to a young person who wants to get politically involved, and do you think it’s important for them to get involved in Philadelphia?
I think it’s important for young people to vote. I mean, if you disrespect the civil rights movement, if you disrespect veterans, if you disrespect everyone’s sacrifice to give you the right vote — we’re not asking anyone to walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We’re asking you to get up off the couch and go to the rec center. It’s a lot easier to get there without having your head cracked open. Those folks were killed and had their heads cracked open for the opportunity to vote. We’re all standing on their shoulders. I’ve never missed an election since I was 18 years of age, and I’m 57. I voted from a hospital bed, absentee, after surgery. I don’t really have any patience for people who don’t want to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
But for people who are civically engaged and who are young, I think some of them are still a little disenfranchised with Philadelphia. They think it’s really tough to break in.
Look out there (points to his staff)
Sure. So what advice would you give civically-minded young people for getting into politics?
You can contact us. We’d be happy to give you some advice. We’d be happy to get some doors open to you. We don’t want to be patronage, but we can help maybe get you interviewed or get you involved in volunteering. Every single one of these kids out here, I didn’t know any of them. And they all found a place here because they wanted to volunteer and they wanted to get involved. If they want to, we can bring them along in the administration, and we’re having those conversations with them now.
And that’s patronage. So you can have high-level patronage, too.
2016: Hillary or Bernie?
Probably Hillary. I think Bernie is fulfilling a role that this party sorely needs and that is bringing some common sense back to the people, grassroots sensibility. I think he’s going to make her look at issues differently, and I think he’s going to fulfill a terrific role. I don’t know if it’s a ticket or not.
I am so proud of the Democratic candidates for president, and I can’t believe anybody could be a Republican and listen to some of those guys up there talking. Donald Trump and his wall. Mike Huckabee with putting women back in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant. I watch those debates and I wonder why I don’t turn them off.
I was wondering if you had watched them.
It’s insanity. And it’s the national Republican position on things. I don’t think it’s the average Republican. I think it’s the vocal, more active people. One of my favorite presidents in history is Dwight Eisenhower. I thought Eisenhower was very substantive in his approach to things and his policies, plus he helped win the war in Europe picking June 6 and not June 5 or seventh. There are lots of Republicans — John Taylor, Jake Corman out of Centre County, Billy Adolf out of Delaware County — lots of moderate Republicans who around who do really good things. I think the extreme on both parties get more highlighted than they deserve.
Before you started running for mayor people loved your Twitter account, for instance. They thought you said some really fun, cool things publicly.
I said some silly things, too.
Yeah. And you haven’t really been saying as many fun things anymore, I think. Are you as fun as you used to be?
Yes. But if you want to be mayor you have to control it. You’re speaking for everybody now. Do I regret the Chris Christie tweet? Nope. But you probably won’t see another one like that while I’m in office because I don’t think it’s mayoral to do that. What I’ve done is I’ve taken the Twitter account and disciplined myself to never say anything negative. If you’re going to tweet something, tweet it positive and you won’t have any issues. The other thing I’ve learned to do — which I didn’t do because I was a novice at it — is not respond to every knucklehead that said something stupid or mean. I don’t respond to them anymore.
You must’ve been tempted by Christie getting kicked out of the Amtrak quiet car?
No. I was not tempted. I’ll give you the analysis of that whole tweet. This is our team. This is our Eagles. If you want to sit in Jeffrey Lurie’s box for a half and then Jerry Jones’ box for a half that’s fine if you want to be a president. Be a Giants fan. Be an Eagles fan. You’re the Jersey governor, but you’re in there cheering against our guys, and it just bothered me. I said what I said. Probably if I had more time to think about it I may have not sent it.
I remember being at a campaign stop up in Mayfair, a senior citizens center. A lady in the corner she looked kind of old. She said to me, “Come here.” So I came over and she said, “I’m voting for you.” I said, “Thanks. Why?” She said, “That Chris Christie tweet was awesome.” And she was like 80 years old, and she was thrilled.
So you’ve been in politics since sophomore, junior year of college. Say you didn’t do that. What’s your dream job?
I wish I’d had the courage in high school to join the drama club. I never had that. It takes courage in high school to do that. I always kick myself for never pursuing that. Probably should’ve gone to law school — not that that’s much different than what I’m doing now, but it would’ve given me some opportunities to fall back on if politics didn’t work out.
But when I go to New York or the theatre here in Philadelphia, the talent on the stage — it’s remarkable to me that people have that kind of talent. Even if they are in the ensemble and dancers, it’s just wonderful to watch that kind of talent. And I don’t know if I would’ve been as talented, but I would have really loved the chance to try it.
Last thing: What Philly mascot would you be if you had to be one — Phanatic, Swoop or Franklin the Blue Dog?
Not Franklin the Blue Dog. Sorry. I loved Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop was awesome, especially during the Iverson years. It was almost like his alter ego. It was really cool. You had a mascot who could do those flips and dunk the ball. That was fun.
Does it have to be a pro team?
You could go college.
The Hawk. The Hawk without a doubt.
That would be tiring, though.
I love when the mascots get in fights. You ever see the LaSalle Explorer fighting the St. Joe Hawk that one time at the Palestra? I wonder where mascots come from frankly. The Phanatic is the best ever, the best ever in the country.