William Penn statue atop Philadelphia City Hall. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

For the first 36 hours of 2024, Philadelphia won’t quite have a chief executive.

Yes, the moment the calendar flips to Monday, Jan. 1, Cherelle Parker’s title will shift from mayor-elect to mayor. Jim Kenney will emit a massive sigh of relief and slowly dematerialize into a ghostly floating frown, like a grumpy Cheshire Cat. 

The timing on that is pretty clear. From the city charter: “The Mayor shall serve for a term of four years beginning on the first Monday of January following the Mayor’s election.”

Parker will, one supposes, be suddenly imbued with a mysterious quintessence that compels residents to show respect when she passes or, more likely, demand she immediately end all crime and explain why their water tasted funky for a couple hours last Tuesday.

But technically, she might be powerless. 

That’s because she won’t yet have been sworn in. As the charter also says, “All persons elected … shall, before entering upon the duties of their offices or employments, take an oath of office to support the Constitutions of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and this charter.”

“It’s weird. That gap is absolutely, positively weird. Nobody will be in charge!” said Jay McCalla, a political commentator and former deputy managing director in the Rendell and Street administrations. “Cherelle Parker will have influence, but she can’t tell anybody to do anything.”

Usually the inauguration and swearing-in of the mayor (and City Council members and other officials) takes place on the morning of that first Monday of the month.

But since this time around it falls on New Year’s Day, that Monday will not only be a holiday, but one on which City Hall and South Broad Street will be lined by throngs of parade-goers at various levels of inebriation watching the Mummers do their thing

Council quite reasonably decided to put off the hallowed event until Jan. 2.

“For heaven’s sakes, we have to decide which is more important,” said McCalla, who’s sat through more than a few swearings-in. “And I think we did. You know, the Mummers come first.”

Which leads to all kinds of questions. What will the new mayor’s status be, exactly, for that day and a half before she publicly raises her hand and promises to support the various constitutions? If she’s not in charge, who is? 

Middle managers: Take the reins!

What if there’s an emergency, like a cruise ship crashing into Penn’s Landing — a wholly improbable scenario McCalla conjured up — or, more realistically, a tanker of Cheez Whiz tipping over and inundating I-95? (Paging Gov. Shapiro…)

One very reasonable and frankly boring take is that there’s no issue. Parker will be in charge enough, nothing to see here, let’s move along, folks.

“For all intents and purposes, the duly elected mayor assumes office and the responsibilities of the mayor,” said Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant who’s worked on many campaigns in the city. “I can’t imagine any scenario or circumstance where there would be pause or hesitation, where someone would say, ‘Hey, you didn’t swear in yet, you can’t do the job.’”

Meanwhile, the real day-to-day work of keeping things moving — answering 911 calls, greasing light poles as needed — will continue to happen thanks to many relatively anonymous city employees, as it usually does, McCalla said.

“What you got there is a delicious 36 hours where the myth will be exposed that politicians have something to do with the running of our city, one way or the other,” he said. “It’s going to be the middle managers of this government running it for that period. Frankly, that’s good news.”

It helps that no one is contesting the election, Rashed added. 

Republican candidate David Oh finished much too far behind Parker in last week’s vote to have any claim to the office, he said, and Kenney is gracefully, even gratefully, departing the scene, with zero interest in casting doubt on the results or elongating his term, unlike a certain former president, for example. 

Things could be different if there were a first-term incumbent running for reelection, especially if it was a very close result, akin to the drawn-out vote counting process last May that eventually gave Councilmember Cindy Bass a 400-vote win over challenger Seth Anderson-Oberman, Rashed said.

In a case like that, the sitting mayor might try to conspicuously keep doing the job as long as possible — even beyond the first Monday of January — to preserve the impression of continuity while the election is resolved, he said.

But that’s not the situation with Kenney.

“This mayor has said clearly that he’s looking forward to his final day,” Rashed said. “It’s not as if he is trying to hold on, trying to break the law, trying to usurp norms. He’s a good guy. He believes in rules and law and order. This isn’t like the federal case.”

Kenney confirmed that via a statement provided to Billy Penn.

“The charter is clear about my final day in office,” he said, in part, “and when that day comes I will be honored to pass the baton to Mayor-elect Parker — an extraordinary public servant and Philadelphia’s first female mayor.”

A 2-day interim mayor?

Former mayor and governor Ed Rendell mused about alternative ways of handling gaps between administrations. For example, he said, there could officially be no mayor; the current mayor could be allowed to stay in office until the new one is sworn; or citizens could vote for one of the living former mayors to temporarily do the job.

“I assume I would win,” Rendell growled in an interview with Billy Penn. “I’d be the mayor for those two days.”

Another option is for Parker to take the oath privately on Monday, with only the officiating judge and family members in attendance. Rendell said that’s what he did when he became mayor, rather than waiting for the ceremonial swearing-in at the inauguration, and he advised Parker to do the same. It likely doesn’t even need to be a judge who performs the ceremony, per Pa. law.

“Let’s assume Monday she’s not sworn in and there’s a horrible 25-inch snowstorm, and it requires the mayor to declare a state of emergency. Well, she technically wouldn’t be the mayor,” he said. “To avoid something like that happening, you get sworn in at a private ceremony.”

A Parker campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday on her swearing-in options.

Rendell also said he has high hopes for Parker — “she will turn out to be the second best mayor in Philadelphia’s history” — and urged citizens to have patience as she settles in. “The mayor has a tough job. You feel like the weight of the entire city is upon your shoulders every minute of every day,” he said. “There will be mistakes in starting up, because they’re going to learn on the job just like I learned on the job. Give her a little slack.”

The official start time for mayors jumps around each term, depending on when Monday happens to fall, rather than always being on Jan. 1 or some other fixed date. Mayor Wilson Goode, for example, hung around for the first five days of 1992 before Rendell took office on Jan. 6. 

Why might the authors of the Home Rule Charter have picked the first Monday? Rendell hazarded a guess.  

Said the former leader of Philadelphia: “I think they must have been under the influence of a hangover.”

Update: A reference to former Mayor Wilson Goode has been corrected. This story has been updated with a statement from Mayor Jim Kenney, and a clarification about who needs to officiate the private oath.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...