The pandemic presented extreme difficulties for everyone, including government leaders around the globe. Kenney has frequently defended his second term by pointing out the circumstances were unprecedented. There are “no playbooks” for what happened, so he couldn’t call anyone for advice, he told WHYY this week.
And there are positive signs for Philadelphia going into 2023. Federal relief programs helped lead to the city’s largest projected budget surplus in history. Downtown retail and residency is growing. The eviction diversion program that helped keep people housed is being held up as a national model.
But crises and difficulties have continued. The city thankfully saw fewer homicides than in 2021, but this year is still in line to have the second-highest count on record, and shootings have not declined as fast as in other cities. Carjackings are skyrocketing. A plan to make it possible for restaurants to continue operating streeteries is falling apart.
Previously, it was just speculation that Kenney doesn’t enjoy his job, with reports based on rumor, second-hand information, anonymous sources, or possibly just misinterpretation of his general grumpiness.
This year he came right out and said it himself.
And that was just one of several occasions when Philly’s mayor seemed to be telegraphing that message, or simply appeared checked out. Here are five of the most egregious.
Going national on masks — then pulling the mandate
Philadelphia made headlines around the country in April, when the Department of Public Health announced it would be the first major U.S. city to reinstate an indoor mask mandate. Kenney leaned into the controversy, casting the decision as a common-sense move and a bold rejection of political polarization.
During a live online interview with The Washington Post, titled “Leadership During Crisis with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney,” he said, “It’s not a big burden to wear a mask, walking into a restaurant, sitting down at your table and when you eat, you take your mask off… You know, this nation has devolved into a selfish, selfish bunch who want what they want for themselves and are sometimes not willing to help each other out as Americans.”
The very next day — four days after reinstating it — Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigiole announced the city was dropping the mask mandate. She also jettisoned the risk assessment system that triggered it in the first place.
The abrupt policy swings left residents’ heads spinning. “It kind of looks indecisive when you make a decision and then four days later, you say no,” a diner at a West Philly cafe told WHYY. “Like, which one is it?”
‘Happy when I’m not here’
After two police officers were hit by bullets during Independence Day festivities, Kenney said he couldn’t enjoy big events like the Fourth of July or the Democratic National Convention because he’s so worried about potential violence. “I’ll be happy when I’m not here — when I’m not mayor, and I can enjoy some stuff,” he said. “You’re looking forward to not being mayor?” a reporter asked. “Yeah, as a matter of fact,” Kenney responded.
As the shocked reactions rolled in, he said he regretted making the comment, and chalked it up to a moment of frustration.
“Let me be clear, I’m incredibly grateful to be mayor of this great city,” Kenney said in a statement. “I made Philadelphians feel like I don’t care, and that cannot be further from the truth.” But the damage was done: Council members called for him to resign and residents expressed disgust.
“From what we see in the community, he’s asleep at the wheel,” Tyrique Glasgow, a Southwest Philly violence intervention advocate, told WHYY. “He woke up last night and said what was on his heart.”
Stone-faced on first day of school
Kenney has never been known for showing boundless enthusiasm at the countless public events he attends. But even with his apathetic manner under the microscope after the Fourth of July comments, he didn’t seem to make much effort.
At a Ring the Bell celebration welcoming students back to Dunbar School in North Philadelphia, new superintendent Tony Watlington and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta grinned and whooped as a line of kids passed by. A blank-faced Kenney seemed barely able to summon the energy for a few half-hearted high-fives.
Giving up a year in advance
Sometimes trying to attack your image problem only makes it worse. The mayor, or his communications aides, tried to change the impression that he doesn’t care about his job, penning a November opinion essay on the city’s anti-violence efforts and pandemic recovery.
“Perception matters, so let me begin by assuring our citizens that I am eager to lead this fight,” Kenney wrote, closing with the assertion, “I am energized to lead the fight.”
Yet the article’s repeated focus on his departure from office, still more than a year away, gave it an oddly valedictory tone, as if he were already riding off into the sunset. “As my term begins to come to a close…” the article began. “I consider it a privilege to work every day from now until the end of my term…,” he explained. And, toward the end of the article, “I will work to address gun violence and create a safer Philadelphia every remaining day of my term in office.”
Cursing out his critics
In late November, public relations executive and former Inquirer publisher Brian Tierney delivered a by-now commonplace criticism of the mayor during an appearance on 6ABC’s Inside Story public affairs show, echoing the same perception that council members and residents had been voicing for months.
Discussing the race to succeed Kenney, Tierney said, “This is a horrible mayor. He says he doesn’t like his job. Quit then, Jim. Go on and do something else,” according to The Inquirer.
The comment might have passed with little notice if Kenney hadn’t reacted vehemently. It was perhaps bold of Tierney to try to say hello to Kenney a few days later at a Pennsylvania Society event in New York, but the mayor’s reaction was striking nonetheless: within earshot of politicians and other bystanders, he reportedly gave a verbal, “F-k you” to Tierney, and walked away.