A Glimpse Into Philadelphia's Next 4 Years

by | January 11, 2016

By Julia Terruso

Jim Kenney began his first week as mayor dancing with Philadelphia sports mascots on a stage celebrating his inauguration. He visited classrooms. He dissed misbehaving Mummers and the recently fired Eagles coach.

By the waning hours of Day Four, he was rushing to the hospital bed of a wounded police officer and coming face-to-face with the most somber realities of the job.

One week is hardly time enough to assess the man elected to lead Philadelphia for 1,453 more days. It's barely the honeymoon phase. As Philadelphia historian and former mayoral candidate Sam Katz said, "If you don't have a good first week, you're in for a rough road."

But the topics Kenney focused on, the people he visited, and the tone he took provide a glimpse into the next four years.

Here are some takeaways from Week No. 1 of Mayor No. 99.

He's still a "kid from South Philly" who rarely addresses a crowd without referencing his rowhouse roots.

That no-frills humility was on full display last week. He didn't want his name on the crests that adorn mayoral podiums and bill-signing tables. He told his new police commissioner, Richard Ross, to throw convention to the wind and pick a personally meaningful place for his swearing-in. (They held it at Ross' alma mater, Central High.)

And for an inaugural gala, he opted for a "block party," complete with aging disc jockey Jerry "the Geator" Blavat and a bevy of Philadelphia mascots instead of a black-tie affair.

"It would have been surprising if Jim Kenney had an inaugural ball and everyone was in a tux," Katz said. "I'm sure he owns one, but I suspect when he looks at it in the closet he probably says to himself, 'Oh, s-, I don't want to wear this.' "

Kenney's first speech as mayor lasted less than five minutes and ran about 1,100 words. By comparison, Michael Nutter's inaugural address in 2008 ran 40 minutes.

By midweek, Nutter's successor was telling clergy at a prayer service at the Salvation Army's Kroc Center in North Philadelphia what he'd already learned on the job.

"With each day, I get more and more understanding that humility and service is really the attitude you need in order to be successful," Kenney said at a podium in the small chapel.

After the service, he stood at the door for 20 minutes to greet each priest, rabbi, and imam -- more than a dozen denominations in all -- with a handshake, hug, or bow.

He's serious about the schools. On his fourth day, Kenney pledged to visit at least one Philadelphia school a week, underscoring a campaign promise to bring universal pre-K and community schools -- which concentrate social and municipal services inside school buildings and try to tackle academic problems by addressing social ones -- to the city.

"I've told my staff, 'Unless you get me into a school once a week, I'll go crazy,' " he told attendees at the inaugural block party, which doubled as a fund-raiser for the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.

Kenney spent most of his brief stage time at the party urging people to donate. He said he'd lease the city's luxury boxes at the sports arenas to bring in money for schools.

Two area unions promptly gave $100,000 to that cause -- the carpenters and the electricians.

He's down-home with the Doughertys. The electricians' union is led by John Dougherty, a political powerbroker so influential in Kenney's mayoral bid that the candidate had to fend off questions last year about whether he'd be beholden to "Johnny Doc." (Kenney repeatedly stated he would not be.)

Kenney took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible held by newly minted Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, John's brother. The next day, at Kevin Dougherty's swearing-in to the state's highest court, Kenney shared stories about growing up with the Dougherty boys in South Philadelphia.

He told the audience at the Constitution Center: "We never forget where we came from; we never forget the sacrifices our parents and grandparents made for us."

He can be defiant and candid. In his first move as mayor, Kenney signed an executive order to limit local cooperation with federal immigration agents.

Kenney has championed the rights of immigrants and shares his own immigration story at every opportunity he gets.

His family came from Ireland in the 1840s, "starving refugees, during the darkest days of the famine," he told the clergy at the chapel on Wednesday. "We came with no documents, we fell off the boat. . . . This city needs to be a beacon for those folks," he said to applause and a loud "bless you!" from a woman in the crowd.

All week, he spoke mostly without notes or talking points and did not shy away from demands of the press. What did he think of racial and gender stereotyping by some Mummers? (He condemned it.) Or of city elections chief Anthony Clark's habit of not going to the office? (He condemned that, too.)

He even dissed Eagles ex-coach Chip Kelly for having once snubbed Kenney in a grocery store when Kenney congratulated him on a win.

"You can insult me, but don't ignore me -- that's the most offensive thing you can do to a person," Kenney said to a press gaggle.

Such candor goes over swimmingly in Philadelphia, said Phil Goldsmith, former city managing director -- who occasionally butted heads with Kenney when the latter served on City Council.

"He's Jim Kenney, and he's going to say what's on his mind," Goldsmith said, "and at times it's going to get him in trouble, but at times -- and I think you're seeing that now -- it's refreshing. So I think I would grade it a very good first start."

He's pounding his progressive agenda. Of the few words Kenney used in his inaugural address, these drew the loudest response: "Black lives do matter."

The Rev. Mark Tyler, the activist pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, said, "To hear a white mayor in his inaugural address say it's time to acknowledge that black lives do matter -- that says something."

Tyler said of Kenney, "On paper he's from South Philly -- you already kind of know and expect certain things -- but he's casting a very wide vision for the city of Philadelphia."

He said Kenney has met with a number of activists in the community and realizes "black lives matter" doesn't mean other lives matter less. "What it says is, until black lives matter, we can't say all lives matter," Tyler said.

In his next breath on the inaugural stage, Kenney reminded listeners that "the overwhelming majority of our police are decent, hard-working public servants who risk their lives every day."

By Friday, those words rang eerily true. A tieless Kenney sipped from a water bottle and looked downcast as Ross, in uniform, fielded questions on live TV about the shooter who said he'd acted "in the name of Islam" when he ambushed and wounded Police Officer Jesse Hartnett.

Kenney stayed mostly silent at Ross' side, but took the microphone with a simple, emphatic point to make about the crime and how Philadelphians should respond.

The shooting, he said, had "nothing to do" with Islam.

(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer