Walking out of his new office on the second floor of the northeast corner of City Hall, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says he hates “100 Days” retrospectives.
“It’s so arbitrary,” he says in typically machine gun-fast South Philly brogue. “Why 100 days, why not 125, why not 200? I’m not blaming you – it’s just so arbitrary.”
Kenney may express ambivalence about the milestone in person, but certainly not in print: His office saw fit to release a report, entitled “First 100 Days: Just Getting Started,” last week, trumpeting his administration’s accomplishments and featuring shots of the mayor and smiling schoolchildren. Arbitrary or no, he doesn’t have much to complain about – he’s had a good 100 days.
Party factions have mostly united behind Kenney – he and his old primary foe, state Rep. Anthony H. Williams, joked about their now-buried rivalry in a campaign ad for Democratic candidate for Attorney General Steve Zappala. The City Council, which has long had a fractious relationship with the city’s chief executive, appears to have buried the hatchet following Michael Nutter’s departure from the mayor’s office. City Council President Darrell Clarke, the mayor’s historical foil, has struggled to redefine himself beyond opposing ideas simply because they emerged from Room 215 of City Hall. The broad coalition of building trades, teachers’ unions and pols representing the city’s black middle class have largely stuck by the new mayor.
Accordingly, Kenney’s tenure in City Hall thus far has been buoyed by a sense of confidence. While some have quietly criticized the mayor for acting too slowly to right the municipal bureaucracy or moving too precipitously to launch a sweeping educational initiative, the future of City Hall, in short, is still largely in Kenney’s hands.
“We put out the report because all those things in there are what we’re proud of and what we’re pursuing,” he said. “And I think we’re going to be successful in that, and I think the face of the city will change as a result.”
But success largely rests on Kenney winning his biggest test to date – a fight over a 3-cent soda tax that would underpin a $300 million bond and provide a revenue source for many of Kenney’s key campaign promises, most critically a universal prekindergarten initiative. The proposal, which Kenney voted against twice while on the city council, has roused the American Beverage Association’s famously aggressive lobbying machine, which has shot down similar proposals across the country, with the exception of, Berkeley, California. If the soda tax passes, Philadelphia would set a damaging precedent for a deep-pocketed industry.
“To tell you the truth, I think they’re running scared,” Kenney said. “They want to spend $8 or $9 million to protect billions in profit from poor neighborhoods they’ve been advertising in for generations. But we’re building our coalition of councilmembers, and we’ll get to nine (votes) – and probably more than nine – by the time we’re done.”
City Hall insiders agree that momentum is on the mayor’s side. No other big unions have protested the tax in solidarity with the Teamsters, who backed Williams over Kenney in last year’s primary, and who draw business from beverage distribution. As both the administration’s allies and the beverage lobby spend millions to sway public opinion on the tax, the path to victory rests on his administration's ability to keep council members’ eyes on an attractive prize – and not on the uncomfortable reality that the proposed services, while commendably aimed at the poor, would be funded through a tax that will disproportionately impact them.
A slow start
If they are critical at all, political observers have mostly knocked Kenney early on for not being more transformative, maintaining large parts of the Nutter administration, like the budget team. But even this critique is only a partial one.
“Overall, he’s not moving as quickly some of us thought,” said Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna. “Some people said he would be ‘the De Blasio of Philadelphia,’” a reference to the mayor of New York City. “But he’s moving much more cautiously. But Philadelphia is also not Manhattan – moving too quickly will not always be too helpful.”
Kenney didn’t wholly deny this.
“Well, you want to hold over your financial people who went through a recession, who are battle-hardened, tested folks who know how to live within your means when you have to – they’re people our rating agencies are comfortable with, and so our bond rating continues to improve,” he said of his financial team. “But we’ve changed positions in a lot of areas; we’ve created new positions and brought people in the government that weren't in the government before.”
Kenney has also suffered from some self-inflicted wounds. Much of the nation’s conservative blogosphere knows him as the man who said Edward Archer, the gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS after shooting Officer Jesse Hartnett, “did not represent Islam.” It seemed like a fair comment coming from the mayor of a city with hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Muslim residents – particularly given that the shooter was mentally ill and never linked to a larger Islamic terrorist network – but to Trump supporters a county or state away, the headlines screamed of hypocrisy emanating from the mayor of a big, liberal city.
And at least one pillar of the broad, disparate coalition that elected Kenney has already been disappointed. Kenney had repeatedly made the unequivocal claim that he would “end stop-and-frisk” throughout his campaign, but dialed that rhetoric back just six weeks after his inauguration.
Although it helped him garner support, it was a dubious promise from the outset. Stop-and-frisk is less a departmental policy than a police power enshrined by a 1968 Supreme Court decision. Unlike in New York City, the Philadelphia police never publicly claimed to have encouraged mass, race-based police searches as a crime-fighting tactic – probably because the department had been tacitly doing that for generations.
“Whether (Kenney) meant to totally stop it, call it something else – I don’t know what was in his mind,” said David Rudovsky, a prominent civil rights attorney now monitoring court-ordered efforts by the city to clamp down on racial profiling. “Our position is that you can do stop-and-frisk, but you have to do it legally. Kenney’s on board with that, and he’s instituted some accountability measures. I didn’t expect him – or the mayor of any city – to actually end stop-and-frisk.”
But in general, it’s tough to get just about anyone to criticize Kenney or his administration outright. The reticence is understandable: If you want something from the new mayor, it’s probably not a great idea to come out guns blazing before he’s weighed in on your pet issue.
“Kenney is earning an ‘A’ so far,” said Alan Butkovitz, the long-serving city controller who briefly contemplated a run for mayor last year. “He’s very open to collaboration – which is not an experience we had with the prior administration, which seemed to want to argue about everything.”
So, some of this may just speak to Kenney’s charmingly incorrigible demeanor and his long-running, largely positive relationships with many power players in town. Yet even people who should probably be pissed off at the new mayor seem to demur.
Kenney passed on endorsing indicted Congressman Chaka Fattah for re-election, instead backing his challenger, state Rep. Dwight Evans, a major supporter of Kenney’s mayoral bid. In doing so, Kenney bucked his own party and some prominent supporters, but Fattah didn’t have a bad word to say about the mayor – or his political stratagems.
“I think he’s off to a very good start – he’s put together a great team,” said Fattah, praising the appointments of Police Commissioner Richard Ross and Otis Hackney as chief education officer. “I don’t have any complaints. I have concerns, such as the concerns about stop-and-frisk.”
Fattah added the endorsement tiff would “not be an obstacle to working with the mayor,” characterizing it as Kenney “nobly repaying his political debt” to Evans. No stranger to high-profile budget fights himself, he characterized Kenney’s first hundred days, unsurprisingly, as typified by the brawling over the sugary drink tax, which he approved of from a tactical standpoint.
“This is his opening gambit. He’s putting his cards on the table” said Fattah. “The idea is, he wants to do preschool and some other ambitious things and he wants a 3 percent (tax on soda) and council will probably meet him halfway … He can probably get the nine votes.”
A taxing battle
Council insiders largely agreed with this assessment, saying that if the vote were held tomorrow, Kenney would probably get what he wants – perhaps not the full 3 percent, but at least a good portion of it.
“There’s two sides to the budget: What are you going to spend the money on, and where you are going to get the money from,” said Fattah. “As long as people buy the policy idea, I’m not sure people are going to care about how the revenue gets generated.”
Kenney needs to pray that stays true, because, as Fattah acknowledged, “If you tax soda, it’s going to fall more on poor families.”
Local pundits agree. The twice-failed attempts by Nutter to win a soda tax focused on the levy as a punishment for buying unhealthy beverages. But publicly tying the soda tax primarily to universal pre-K means that people most affected by the tax – the poor – are also its primary beneficiaries.
“He tied it not to good health but to helping kids achieve their fullest potential through the ‘miracle’ of pre-K,” said former Philadelphia Inquirer political columnist Tom Ferrick. “So the tax is about the kids.”
To be fair, Nutter pitched his second attempt at the tax as a way to patch the school district’s budget. But Kenney’s masterstroke this go-round, from a political standpoint, is tying the other big chunk of future soda tax revenue to renovating the city’s beleaguered rec centers and parks.
“From a tactical standpoint, I think it was good thing to do in the beginning. And politically, he did it, again, tactically, in a good way,” Ferrick said. “He built in wiggle room for compromise and created it so it really is a lure for council members, because it gives them a big shot of money in their districts for projects that need to get done.”
While former Philadelphia Managing Director Jay McCalla savaged Kenney’s proposal in a recent op-ed as “pork,” the proposal would mean council members who might be opposed to a tax that fell disproportionately on the poor out of principle, like West Philly councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, might be more inclined to consider voting in favor of giving themselves more spending money for highly visible projects.
While Kenney said McCalla was simply evincing sour grapes over being turned down for a key departmental appointment in his administration, he didn’t deny there was a built-in incentive.
“I think that obviously there’s 10 districts and you need nine votes,” he said. “Each district has parks, recreation centers, libraries, pre-K moms, community school advocates – a lot of people lobbying for our efforts. That’s opposed to Big Soda hiring lobbyists and some advertising people to tell their story; we’re telling our story on the grassroots level to each council member.”
Another political reality pushing the tax forward: The city badly needs more money, for everything from new garbage trucks to pensions. The administration has worked hard to convince pols that it has run out of new taxes that can be feasibly raised without causing a public uproar.
"All the levers have been pulled,” Kenney’s policy director Jim Engler told the Inquirer last month, describing the soda tax as “an untapped resource that’s still out there,"
To opponents of Kenney’s tax, like ABA lobbyist Lauren Vidas, this is nothing more than a cop-out by an administration unwilling to commit to tackling extant revenue issues.
“Our tax collection rates are still miserable, and that’s a constant battle for the city,” she said. “It’s frustrating that it almost seems like an easier lift to fight a three-month battle over a single tax than to go in and do the hard work that needs to be done 12 months a year to get the system fixed. It’s like we maxed out our credit cards and now we’re trying to open a new line of credit.”
Vidas, a lawyer and onetime staffer for former councilman Bill Green, suggested that because of a backlog of property assessment appeals, the city was leaving tens of millions of dollars in revenue on the table by failing to capture property tax gains caused by the downtown real estate boom.
She said the cost of this inaction would be borne by poor Philadelphians in the supermarket checkout aisle.
“Good politics and good policy are two different things,” Vidas said. “This is a regressive tax, even if the people who are paying for it are the primary beneficiaries.”
It’s a point the ABA is spending millions on by airing commercials that it hopes will brand Kenney’s revenue proposal as a “grocery tax” that will hammer the poor. While the administration counters that “Big Soda” doesn’t have to pass the cost onto consumers, and that people can instead buy non-sugary drinks or bottled water, whether they can make all these ideas stick in time for a likely June council vote is something that won’t be decided in Kenney’s first hundred days.
But pundits like Ferrick say these points speak to the tax’s big weakness – if the soda tax is the city’s last lever for new revenue, what happens when people inevitably start buying less soda?
“We are saying it is going to be a declining source of revenue, by saying there’s going to be a 55 percent drop off in purchase (next year), which still gets us up to the $96 million we need to fund our programs,” he explained.
The mayor is talking the programs he wants to fund to build his legacy. Many of these are new expenses for a city that already had looming financial problems before Kenney took office.
“Our tax revenues rise by 2 to 3 percent each year, while expenses rise by 4 to 5 percent,” Ferrick said. “For the changes that need to happen, like the pension problem or contract negotiations, you do not have someone in Jim Kenney who’s going to challenge the hierarchy to make change.”
The coming storm
Kenney’s biggest weakness since his last-minute entry into the mayor’s race has been his strong ties to an established order in City Hall that resisted many of the painful reforms Nutter tried (and often failed) to implement. Kenney’s success in lining up political actors and union support for his early initiatives is largely built on that foundation.
During the mayoral campaign, Kenney committed himself to even more political actors, like Evans. While the new mayor has been largely praised for his high-level appointments – Hackney as education chief or new Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis, for example – other picks underline some of Kenney’s prior commitments.
Jim Moylan, the head of a civic association who also happens to be International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union kingpin John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty’s chiropractor, now heads the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Chris Rupe, a legislative director for Local 98 who worked on a super-PAC that supported the Kenney campaign, now earns $115,000 per year as Chief of Staff for the Managing Director’s Office, a historic locus for executive-level political appointments. Kenny Gamble’s daughter-in-law, Deana, who worked at the record mogul-turned-political player’s charter school company, was hired as communications director for the newly minted Mayor’s Office of Education. Even controversial City Council staffer Latrice Bryant - who made headlines for billing the city for personal time and then comparing the reporter that uncovered the story to a Klansman in 2008 - has landed a cushy job at the MDO earning $115,000 a year. Beverly Woods, a former director at the Urban Affairs Coalition, a troubled economic development agency heavily tied to Evans, was also recently appointed to a $116,000 a year top slot in the MDO.
All were brought in under Kenney. The MDO appointments are among the highest salaried positions in that office, which has grown by $1 million in salaries under Kenney. The administration did not comment on the appointments.
The new mayor’s rush to fund and implement a far-reaching and expensive new educational program in his first year shows his administration feels pressured to pull off some early wins, to validate the faith a very large group of people put in him, and to aggressively spend the political capital earned from his victory last year. He’ll probably get much of what he wants, but his biggest and most complex challenges lay ahead. Whether he can face those without alienating his many friends remains to be seen.
Kenney, outside of his new office, is confident.
“We’re working with negotiating with our unions now on the pension issue; we have some things down the road that may resolve some of these issues or make it a much better situation,” Kenney said. “We’ll cross that bridge in a year or two when we come to it.”
But while he was still on council, Kenney pushed through a major pension bonus bill that was decried in 2007 as a giveaway to city workers, a change that cost the city $31 million last year alone. Despite the fund’s $5.7 billion hole, Kenney has said he would not reverse the action. In another foreshadowing of his conduct with the city’s workforce as mayor, Kenney recently reversed implementation of money-saving Fire Department “brownouts.” The son of a firefighter had railed against this policy for years as endangering lives, even though 2015 saw the fewest fire deaths in city history.
The longer the city waits, the more intractable some of these problems become. A week before Kenney spoke to City & State, the Inquirer quizzed the mayor on the continued problem of city employees exploiting a loophole in an early retirement scheme, known as DROP, to double down on certain pension benefits.
Kenney recalled the city’s labor unions resisting his attempts to patch the hole on council. Now, he has at least 1,300 more days to see how much political will and capital it will take to fix it.