Protestors gathered outside the Octavius Catto statue at City Hall to protest Brian Abernathy, Mayor Kenney's pick for managing director.

Updated 3:47 p.m.

A coalition of left-leaning activist groups is gunning for Mayor Jim Kenney’s newly selected right-hand man. Brian Abernathy is slated to replace Mike DeBerardinis, who is stepping down next month as the city’s managing director to become a professor at the Fels Institute.

Amid snow flurries outside City Hall on Wednesday, about a dozen organizers called on Kenney to not only retract his promotion of Abernathy, but to fire the longtime bureaucrat altogether.

The new campaign was largely sparked by Abernathy’s recent admission that he reported undocumented immigrants to immigration officials in 2017 despite the city’s existing “sanctuary” laws.

Complaints about Abernathy extend to his comments and work around policing, housing, the opioid crisis and the block party application process — though they omit any criticism of the mayor or the current managing director.

“Obviously there are critiques that could be raised of anyone, but we’ve noticed these red flags [with Abernathy] across the board that give us pause,” said Jed Laucharoen, an organizer with Socialist Alternative Philadelphia, one of the co-signing groups.

The 16 signatures behind the Abernathy opposition campaign include immigrant advocacy groups like the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, AbolishICE PHL and the Shut Down Berks Coalition.

City officials dispute the allegations against their new administrator. “I can say that many of the issues raised by the group regarding Brian Abernathy’s tenure are overstated or, in some cases, factually wrong,” Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn told Billy Penn via email.

Brian Abernathy, set to become Philadelphia’s managing director in January Credit: Philadelphia City Council / Flickr

Notably absent from the list of organizations behind the campaign — which was outlined in a letter hand-delivered to a Kenney aide — is prominent immigrant advocacy nonprofit Juntos.

Reached by phone, Juntos director Erika Almirón confirmed the group is not part of the call to terminate Abernathy. However, she does think his actions over the years warranted more criticism than they received, she said.

“What Brian Abernathy did by calling ICE is appalling, and we believe that we should be questioning people in power who makes moves like that, especially when we so adamantly call ourselves a sanctuary city,” Almirón said.

Abernathy — who got his start as an aide to former Councilman Frank DiCicco — has served as the city’s first deputy managing director under DiBerardinis for two years. Prior to joining the administration he served as the executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, where he oversaw a number or urban renewal and affordable housing developments.

A rising star in City Hall, he’s faced considerable public criticism over the years — and apologized often.

The longtime city official has expressed regret over calls he’s made on everything from block party policy to eminent domain to the recent ICE scandal. He also told Billy Penn he felt some of the new criticism is “absolutely” fair.

“When you’re in government, you’re bound to make mistakes — because you’re human,” Abernathy said. “I’m optimistic that I can rebuild relationships with the advocate community, but I can’t start to do that if I don’t own up to screwing up.”

Dunn confirmed that the Mayor’s Office received the joint letter Wednesday afternoon — but added the opposition won’t change Kenney’s mind on appointing Abernathy in January.

“The Mayor retains full confidence in Brian and looks forward to his tenure as Managing Director, which begins next month,” Dunn said.

Communicating with ICE

Activists at Wednesday’s rally acknowledged Abernathy appeared on their radar when they learned about his past interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as reported in a Philadelphia Inquirer and ProPublica investigation this fall.

Back in 2017, Abernathy made a controversial decision to alert ICE agents about five undocumented inmates who were set to be released on bond before they faced trials on felony charges, which include the attempted murder and rape of a child.

An executive order championed by Mayor Kenney since he took office explicitly bars Philly officials from giving ICE advance notice of the release of undocumented immigrants from city custody — but Abernathy did it anyway. In his defense, Abernathy told journalists the crimes were so egregious that he felt compelled to inform a federal immigration authorities about the five suspects. Agents apprehended them upon their release.

Sundrop Carter, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, was among the activists who fought for the 2014 sanctuary order in the first place. To her, Abernathy’s decision to go against the city’s hard-won policy was particularly frustrating.

“When we found out about the instance of him violating that policy and calling ICE, that was definitely a blow to us,” Carter told Billy Penn. “All of us who were part of that fight took it a little personally.”

Abernathy has since expressed regret for sharing the information with the feds.

“At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. Looking back on it, I don’t think it was,” Abernathy told the Inquirer. “It’s a hard issue, and I’ve beaten myself up about it.”

Messing with block parties and more

The campaign to fire Abernathy — extrapolated in a “profile” of his past five years in various positions of power — calls out multiple perceived transgressions, some of which the incoming managing director says are inaccurate.

One of Abernathy’s earliest and perhaps biggest brushes with public backlash revolved around the city’s highly criticized condemnation and seizure of private property through a process known as eminent domain.

When he joined the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 2014, the agency was already in the midst of condemning and seizing a West Philly artist’s studio. In their “profile,” advocates depict Abernathy as the engineer of the land-grab. But he “inherited the problem,” he said, adding that PRA eventually withdrew its condemnation plans at his direction instead of taking the case to court.

Abernathy has since spoken more critically about the practice. In a 2016 panel discussion, he criticized the city’s record of seizing private property, calling it “a violent act” with “a reputation of pushing black folks out for white folks.”

Another issue on which Abernathy has changed course: safe-injection sites.

The first time Abernathy was asked how he felt about setting up a facility where people could safely use drugs and access recovery services, he responded “Hell, no.”

After a visit to Vancouver — where safe-injection sites have operated since 2003 and successfully limited the number of fatal overdoses — he’s more open to the idea, conceding that the pros might outweigh the cons.

Then there’s this year’s short-lived block party rule change.

In August, the city implemented a new permitting flow that required residents to first get approval from police before submitting their request to the Streets Department. Aside from simply making it more difficult to throw a block party, that process also could have deterred residents who don’t want to visit their local police stations, critics pointed out. After swift backlash, the change was rescinded — and Abernathy criticized himself.

“I will say I didn’t have as much forethought as I should have,” he told Billy Penn in October. “As soon as I realized there was a problem, I wanted to fix it.”

“Shame on me,” Abernathy added.

‘A forward-thinking guy’

Those who have worked with Abernathy call him an effective diplomat and administrator who’s well-suited to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations.

Former City Solicitor Sozi Tulante, who left the Kenney administration earlier this year to teach at Penn, worked closely with Abernathy during the city’s “sanctuary city” lawsuit against the federal government. In Tulante’s mind, Abernathy’s willingness to offer mea culpas is a rare sight in the blame-shirking bureaucracy of City Hall.

“He’s been very forthright by saying ‘it’s on me,’ and a lot of people in city government don’t do that,”  So is that a good thing? I think so,” Tulante said. “But I can see how some people are frustrated but it.”

Ronda B. Goldfein, director of AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and the chair of the watchdog Police Advisory Commission, has worked with Abernathy for years on police accountability and other issues.

“Would I prefer a guy who stuck to his guns no matter what, or a guy who changed his position in the face of evidence and good reason? Brian is a forward-thinking guy,” Goldfein said.

Some criticism further alleged that Abernathy was soft on police abuses of power at the Managing Director’s Office, where he has served at the public safety liaison between the mayor and the city’s police and fire departments. Goldfein bristled at the criticism, noting that Abernathy has been supportive of PAC’s push to independently investigate civilian complaints against police officers.

“I care very deeply that our police officers are held accountable,” Abernathy said.

Who wants him gone

The organizations that have signed on to the call for Abernathy’s dismissal are:

  • AbolishICE PHL
  • Americans for Democratic Action – Southeastern PA
  • Asian Americans United
  • Black and Brown Workers Cooperative
  • CADBI (Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration)
  • Free Migration Project
  • Green Party of Philadelphia
  • HRC Human Rights Coalition
  • LaSalle YDSA
  • LILAC – Philly DSA
  • Pennsylvania Federation BMWED/IBT
  • Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC)
  • Philadelphia Tenants Union
  • Shut Down Berks Coalition
  • Socialist Alternative Philadelphia
  • Stadium Stompers

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...