It’s been a slow but steady last eight days of fanfare leading up to a son of South Philadelphia’s bid for the highest office in the City of Philadelphia. But as of this week, it’s official. Now-former City Councilman at-large Jim Kenney, an Irish American Mummer and son of a firefighter, is poised to make an earnest run for mayor.
Resigning from City Council to run for mayor is part of Philadelphia’s charter rules: no Council person can run for mayor until he or she quits. Last Tuesday, Kenney invited the press to his office in City Hall to report that Thursday, Jan. 29 would be his last day in Council after 23 years of service.
“I’ll be resigning on Thursday, and I’m not going to be able to tell anybody here what I am going to do after Thursday, because I would then run afoul of our City Charter. Clearly, a resignation is a big step, and it shows that I have some intentions on following through on what people have been speculating about,” Kenney told a room full of reporters. “Even though I come from South Philadelphia and have a historical base there, I think that I’ve been able to work with every neighborhood in this city, and I think that folks understand how my heart feels, what I feel and what motivates me to take the positions that I’ve taken over the years.”
Kenney’s been a vocal advocate for those less fortunate, including immigrants, the poor and LGBT folks, vouching over a decade ago for domestic partnership benefits despite a mountain of letters of discouragement (and some Mummers jibes, too).
“Back in the early ’90s, I was one of the first folks on board with domestic partnership. It didn’t make the Catholic Church all that happy at the time, and we had a big battle about those issues, but I think fairness is justice all the time, regardless of what the issue is,” Kenney stated last Jan. 27.
When city solicitor Ken Trujillo stepped down from his race, Kenney saw it as an opportunity to run that he couldn’t let slip past him, a refrain heard at his speech to City Council a week ago. But as Jane Slusser, Kenney’s campaign manager, put it, as soon as Trujillo dropped out, the conversation became about getting her employer in.
“A number of folks from our team reached out to Kenney’s staff and vice versa. The response since he announced [he would resign] has been phenomenal — he can barely put down the phone to pick up the phone again,” the South-of-South resident reported, and argues that Kenney is a candidate whom people have been eagerly waiting for — one who’s ready to get down to issues.
“Missing [from the race] up to this point is the lack of people who want to talk about the issues, and Jim is definitely going to change that,” she said.
As for the front-runners of the moment, state Sen. Anthony H. Williams and former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, Slusser’s confident that there’s no comparing the three.
The former resident of 12th and Wharton streets said “Anyone who’s been paying attention to this race knows that there’s no one excited about them and there’s a lot of concerns. The overwhelmingly positive response to Jim entering the race, part of it is a lack of inspiration in those two candidates.”
As for money, always an issue for big campaigns, Kenney and his team are essentially able to convert moneys he raised for re-election to City Council into a mayoral race fund. And while he’s got only about $80,000 in his bank account (compared to the nearly $425,000 that both Williams and Abraham have reportedly raised), money isn’t the only need to win a campaign. There has to be a story.
Richie Lazer, a 2014 South Philly Review Difference Maker and resident of the 100 block of Ritner Street, can tell Kenney’s story pretty well.
“Jim was a household name in South Philly. If there was ever an issue it was ‘Call Jim’s office,’ whether it was a pothole or a senior citizen issue — we always had tons of calls,” the fellow La Salle University grad and political science major said.
He knows because he’s been answering calls for Kenney as a community liaison for nearly seven years.
“It’s pretty exciting. I think Jim’s always wanted to do this. As a Council person you can do a lot of good things but when you’re on the second floor and in charge, you can really make some big changes,” the Whitman inhabitant said.
Kenney, a St. Joseph’s Prep alumnus, told an unusually swollen City Council room last week that the Jesuits gave him the inspiration that’s been with him ever since his 1980 graduation.
“They just formed you — they just molded your psyche and your attitude. You cannot be a truly happy person no matter what you accomplish or accumulate, you’re never truly happy unless you’re serving someone else,” Kenney said.
One week ago, every single City Council person sang his praise with a fond farewell. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, long an ally and friend in council to Kenney, said she looked long and hard for a good quote that describes her departing peer, and settled on a Joe Paterno quote because she “bleeds blue and white.”
“Play as hard as you can. Don’t be stupid. Pay attention to details. And have enough guts in the clutch that you’re not afraid to make a play. That was Jim Kenney in his office in Council,” the fellow at-large Council member said.
Fellow South Philadelphian and Mummer, 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla, said “as a next door neighbor, he was relied on heavily when I first came to office, and it was so important to have a friend to come to with questions,” adding “Jimmy’s vision is to move forward the City of Philadelphia.”
The campaign, though official this week, began last week. And sitting in his office last week, talking to reporters, he dropped what seemed like a few perfectly-rehearsed sound bytes.
“I’m hoping [my base] is every thinking and good-feeling Philadelphian. I’m a lifelong Philadelphian, I’ve lived in the city for 56 years, I come from South Philadelphia, I was a long-time Mummer. When you listen to people and you try to understand where they’re coming from, you’re a better overall person and a better overall elected official,” Kenney said. “I think that my reputation throughout Philadelphia is one of fairness, it’s one of courage to stand up when people are being treated badly, and the ability to take tough issues on when you know they’re just and right. It’s time for me to take the opportunity that’s presented, do my best, put my best foot forward, speak to every community, speak to every person in the city and if they accept my vision, then great. If they don’t, I’ll go on, I’ll move on and do something else.”
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.
Staff Photo by Bill Chenevert
All of City Council posed with Jim Kenney on his last day as an at-large City Councilman last Thursday. Former 1st District Councilman, Frank DiCicco (far right), was in on the celebration, too.
Staff Photo by Bill Chenevert