James Kenney: Will the son of South Philly be our next mayor?
After more than two decades representing Philadelphia as a councilman ‘at-large,’Jim Kenney had set his eye on the mayor’s office. He waited for the right time to take the plunge, and this past January the necessary factors aligned for him to join the mayoral race.
“When you are in council and there are certain things you want to accomplish, but unless you are the mayor, is hard to get things done,” Kenney said. “I know what city politics and city government is like. Even though I come from South Philadelphia, I have been able to work in every neighborhood in the city. I think folks understand what motivates me to take the positions that I’ve taken over the years.”
So far, out of the six official candidates, Kenney is in the lead as far as endorsements go.
As the only candidate that has held membership in a union, so far he’s secured endorsements from the Philadelphia Fire Fighters’ Union, Local 22, members of AFSCME's District 1199C (local hospital union), and more recently from the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, comprised of over 100 local labor unions.
And although some say it is too soon to cast him as the official pick of the LGBT community, Kenney has been praised for his LGBT Equality Bill approved in 2013 and the city-wide LGBT-specific hate crimes legislation in 2014. We know that Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal gave him an early endorsement, and that he also received the nod from State Rep. Brian Sims and several Philadelphia LGBT leaders including Mike Marsico, Kathy Padilla, Sharron Cooks, and Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou.
When asked by AL DÍA News how he intends reach out to the Latino voter, the former councilman talked about his support for legislation to make Philadelphia more immigrant-friendly, including a push to end Philadelphia's cooperation with ICE holds.
Kenney’s involvement with immigration issues started back in 2000, when he introduced a resolution calling for hearings on ways to increase immigration.
“It is my culture, it is my history… ‘No Irish need apply.’ They told us to go back home, back where we came from. We had strange customs, crazy food and crazy things that we did, that people didn’t like,” Kenney said. “They were out to push the Irish out and back into Ireland and other places, and I think that is the same experience that Mexicans and other people are experiencing now. That kind of hatred and ignorance that was forced on us.”
What was your process in deciding to become a mayoral candidate?
I talked myself out of it two times before, and practically talked myself out of it a third time but then Ken Trujillo decided not to run and all the opportunities … taking advantage of his staff, and the infrastructure that he had in place made it almost impossible for me to turn it down this time. My resignation from Council and my entry into the campaign has been very liberating for me. I was all concerned and afraid of giving up my job — something I had done for 23 years— it was a big transition. But I think that getting out there, actually being a candidate, talking to people, telling them what you think, what your vision is of the city, has been a wonderful experience. And no matter what happens I’ll never regret anything that I’ve done in this campaign because it has really been a lot of fun.
What are you bringing to the table as a candidate that is new?
I think that I can build and create coalitions of people that traditionally you wouldn’t think a guy like me — a white Irish Catholic guy from South Philly — would be able to do. But I think that I can bring together ethnic communities, racial communities, labor, business. Everyone that we need to run Philadelphia’s boat in the same direction and try to make everybody’s life able to meet the potential that they’re destined to meet.
What is your campaign strategy as election day gets closer?
First is being able to raise enough money to get your message out on television and other forums. It is talking to people and convincing them that your vision of the city is the right vision and the right direction to go in. The fact that I was an at-large council member and not a district member, I think I have the advantage of having represented the city as a whole across my entire career so I don’t have the tunnel vision of just one district. I’ve represented every neighborhood in my entire career and I think that will work well for me going forward both as a candidate and then as mayor.
If elected, how is your dynamic with City Council going to change?
I think my relationship with City Council is excellent now and it will be even better as we go forward. Every elected official has a need to be relevant and to get their good ideas enforced. I think that I have the ability to work with my former colleagues to see that happens. I am a smart person but I am not the smartest person in the room, and everybody has good ideas that we need to try to foster or try to move forward, for their sake and the sake of the city. And then, when it comes time for difficult decisions to be made, I’ll have enough credit in the bank with my council colleagues. I think it should be a total positive because I know what makes those folks tick, they all come at issues from different directions and perspectives, but they all have the interest of the city at heart. I can create a team that I think would be very effective.
What would be the first thing you would do once in office?
The first issue is the fact that we have such poverty rate for a large city, 25 or 26 percent, and a lot of that is related to the education system that we have. Of course the state has the responsibility to step up to fund education properly, which they have not done. But I can’t wait for the state to fly in like Superman to save the day, I think the one thing we can do as a city is ensure over the next four to five years that every child, 3 and 4 year olds, will have access to quality pre-K, which will prepare them then to be able to read at a grade level by the time they are in first, second and third grades. Which will then keep them from being disruptive students when they are in seventh or eighth grades, or dropping out when they are in ninth or tenth grades. If we can get people to be prepared, I think it is less likely that they’ll drop out, more likely to be successful and go on to college or some trade. I think that is the way we change the poverty cycle in Philadelphia. Because all the things we spend money on the city that are negative — like courts and prisons and DHS and other kinds of services for people who are going in the wrong direction — we can keep them in the right direction if we spend less money on poverty services in the next 10 years than we spend now, because we’ll have people who are educated who can get a job and can take care of themselves and their families.
Education may well be the issue that gets Philadelphia’s next mayor elected and you got the official endorsement by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. What is your proposal for education?
I would have been totally shocked if I didn’t get it. I think Anthony Williams, as nice a person as he is, and as good person as he is, does not have the same philosophy that I have on education and dealing with teachers and public schools. Lynne Abraham hasn’t really expressed any position one way or the other. I think I been very clear from the beginning and through my career that I am a supporter of public education. Charters are here to stay, but we need to be reimbursed by the state for charter costs, because it is bleeding our district dry of resources and I am not for profit making educational choices. I think that public education is a gift that we give to our citizens, and it’s been that way almost since the country started, and I think we should stay that way.
What is your stand on the School Reform Commission?
I didn’t create them and I can’t get rid of them, or change the situation. If they continue to exist I would surely cooperate with them to work hand-in-hand with them. If the governance situation changes with the school district, either through the SRC dissolving themselves or the state doing something, I will certainly cooperate with whatever system we have in place. But right now the state is in charge and I have to deal with what we have and make the best of it.
How do you plan reach out to Latino voters so they don’t feel disenfranchised from the political process?
Basically my campaign is voter outreach. We are dealing with a lot of the young folks and many ethnic groups. I just keep on being myself, that is my outreach. I think people know what I stand for, and the type of person I am, and that I am not afraid to stand up and fight against things that are ignorant and not helpful to people. That’s the reputation I’ve earned over my 23 years, and I will continue to push myself out there as someone who has represented the city as a whole for the last 23 years. And will represent the city well as mayor.
If elected, how do you plan to keep Philadelphia a welcoming and diverse city?
I think immigration is an awesome opportunity for us. It’s been clear in the last 10 to 15 years that the reason Philadelphia’s population has grown is because of immigration and we need to reach out and celebrate that. We need a permanent office of immigration services for our new Philadelphians, our news Americans. I think we need to be understanding that people come here because they are under stress and strife in the countries that they are living in, and this is the country and the city that gives them that opportunity to change that, and to have a better life and a better life for their kids. The Irish, the Italians, the Jews and the Polish, everyone else came here to do the same thing. I think that the Mexicans and the Guatemalans, and the Dominicans and other folks that are coming here for the same purpose, need to be supported and celebrated, and protected from the Federal Government and some of their stupid policies as they’re related to immigration. I want to be a sanctuary. I want to be a sanctuary for folks who are accused by the Federal Government, who are held without warrant, who are deported without reason, and I think we are not going to cooperate with the Federal Government in any of that stuff.
Immigration is an issue your worked on as a council member. How do you plan to turn Philadelphia into an immigrant sanctuary?
I am happy for that but I also think we have to earn people’s trust. We have to make people understand that they’re not in danger living in a city like Philadelphia, that we are not going to hold them without a warrant for 48 hours until the Federal Government decides whether they are going to deport them or not. I want people to feel safe and protected, I think that we should have some form of ID card, which is similar to what New York has done, and we are going to try to work on that. People need to have bank accounts, they need drivers licenses, they need social security numbers. They need to be part of our society. To keep them underground and keep them hiding is a bad thing, and I think the people that I ran into who are immigrants, whether they are documented or not, are decent people. I think Philadelphia should be the kind of safe haven they need.
Regardless of whether you get elected or not, are you planning to stay in politics for the long run?
I don’t know. If I get elected, obviously I would do my best for four years and then run for reelection. I am not going to run for governor. I am not running for U.S. senator, congress or any national office. This will probably be my last office. And if I am not successful, I expect to be involved in some way with either the public or non-profit sector. I like helping people, I like being involved in people’s lives situations and difficulties, I think in some form or the other I’ll be in public service.