South Philadelphia has its second mayor in my lifetime. But there could not be two more different people than Jim Kenney and Frank Rizzo. The divide between Kenney and Rizzo is as deep as that between Donald Trump and Barack Obama. And like Obama and Trump, they stir the pot of controversy with a righteous certainty. Kenney’s roots in this area go deeper than those of Rizzo who lived here only briefly. But compared to Rizzo, Kenney is largely viewed without honor in South Philadelphia.
Kenney’s critics feel that he has betrayed his roots. They remember when he was one of them. Jimmy is the oldest of four kids. A neighbor in the Whitman section. The son of working-class parents. Went to the neighborhood parochial school with them. Smart enough to go to St. Joe’s Prep. Became the first in his family to graduate college. Marched as a Mummer.
Unlike some of the area’s other local sons, he didn’t get elected to City Council as the first step toward a prison sentence. This area is forgiving — make that too forgiving — of its political sons who wind up serving jail time. We not only still honor some of our fallen, sometimes we even re-elect them. That wasn’t a concern with Jimmy. He was a bright light from the beginning. A straight arrow. Didn’t get taken down by the Vince Fumo mess.
I remember a former editor of this newspaper telling me that she had interviewed two South Philadelphians at that time who’d recently been elected to City Council — Frank DiCicco and Jim Kenney. She was impressed with the intelligence of both men. Thought they were several cuts above the kind of politicians who usually came out of this area. She was right.
As an at-large member of City Council, Kenney took a genuine interest in quality-of-life issues. He was passionate. Almost obsessive in his belief that citizens have the right to be free to live decent lives. Stories about Kenney’s dedication to quality of life for South Philadelphians became legendary. He supposedly stopped prostitutes from shopping their wares down here. Kept them away from our neighborhoods.
Here’s the rub. Kenney showed an interest in socially liberal causes. No city official has been friendlier to the LGBT community. These are the kinds of causes that don’t especially endear you around here. But a lot of that was largely ignored by South Philadelphians because Kenney did the necessary grunt work required of a councilman. Hell, being a liberal was just one of Jimmy’s “quirks.” You could call his office, and have a good chance of Kenney answering his office phone. A lunch pail politician.
When Kenney decided to run for Mayor in 2015, the field was crowded. Jimmy was a long shot. But Council President Darrell Clarke — likely the favorite — decided not to run and his main opponent, Anthony Williams, fizzled. Kenney became the surprise Democratic nominee for mayor. As we all know, the Democratic nominee for mayor in Philadelphia is tantamount to winning the election. But the surprise to most political observers was the way Kenney brought together the different elements of the Democratic Party — the unions — the Center City liberals — and all the factions in between. The result was a landslide.
Kenney’s agenda has been ambitious. That scared some of the conservative media in Philadelphia. He was compared to the liberal mayor of New York Bill de Blasio, a favorite target of conservatives. Kenney lacked the right temperament. Maybe even drank too much, they hinted. He was a loose cannon with a Twitter account.
As mayor, Kenney has shown none of these so-called personality flaws. But policy-wise, the mayor has been the fiery liberal they feared. Even had a public spat with Archbishop Chaput.
Kenney has been a local counter force to Donald Trump. He eliminated the policy of arresting kids — many of them minorities — for possessing small amounts of marijuana and replaced that penalty with fines. Much to the chagrin of the soda industry, Kenney got his sugary drinks tax through City Council and into law. The tax will fund an ambitious pre-K program and update recreation centers and libraries around the city. Tax revenue so far has exceeded projections, but the beverage industry is not going quietly. As expected, the tax is being challenged in the courts. The industry claims the tax is costing the city jobs. But perhaps even a bigger firestorm is building over Kenney’s insistence on designating Philadelphia as a sanctuary city.
Critics claim that Kenney’s policy has allowed dangerous criminals to go free, although the city’s existing policy is not to release convicted felons. This columnist worries that non-compliance by local governments with federal law sets a bad precedent and is easily abused. But now President Trump has expanded federal enforcement of immigration laws. Wholesale deportation seems his goal. Separation of mothers from their children when apprehended at the border is being considered. Humanity seems to cry out for resistance. The Trump Administration is promising to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia. So far Kenney has stood firm.
Kenney’s causes are noble, but they don’t resonate in South Philadelphia. This is still Rizzo country. Trump country. And by the way, have you turned your back on the Mummers, Jimmy?
Jim Kenney may well become a great mayor. But they won’t be naming any streets for him around here. Maybe that’s our fault.