The late office of Councilman Jim Kenney
Above the window in Councilman Jim Kenney’s office is a wooden plaque with painted block letters that say ‘CARPE DIEM’ — seize the day. There’s a mug on his desk packed with various colored ink pens. There is only one yellow pencil, full length, eraser unworn.
“I don’t want to be retired, sitting on my porch, and saying I should have tried it,” the councilman said yesterday afternoon in his press-packed office. What he would regret not doing, well, he couldn’t exactly say.
The press conference was called last minute. Kenney announced that he will be resigning from City Council on Thursday, a move that many predicted. Last week, the councilman-at-large was pressed heavily about whether or not he would run for the mayor’s office. Ken Trujillo’s withdrawal from the race, his campaign teams’ clandestine meetings with Kenney, their uncommitted responses — all signs pointed towards yes.
But yesterday, Kenney still held his councilman’s office. And in due respect to the Oath to Office that hangs in a frame by his window, or perhaps the bound copy of the Philadelphia Home Charter Rule from 1951 that rests on the wooden mantle nearby, Kenney didn’t explicitly say what everyone already knew.
“I know they’re stupid rules. But they’re rules, and we have to follow them,” he said, citing the city charter rule that forbids incumbent city council members from running for another city position.
For the next 30 minutes, Kenney fielded questions about how he’ll approach that-which-cannot-be-named.
It began with campaign logistics. How will he finance his mayoral campaign? He’ll pick up the phone and start asking for money like everybody else, he said. What will he do for work until then? He’ll look for work like everyone else. Why does he even want to run for mayor? Solely in fear of missing out? What exactly is his base? Why does he think he has a chance?
Kenney is a 56-year-old Philadelphia native, with 23 of those years on City Council. Even from the way he responds to questions, or maybe from the medieval castle toy on his desk, it’s clear that he’s a man who doesn’t hide his personality. He’s been known to operate without a filter, particularly to naysayers and hecklers on his Twitter account. But as the reporters probe into his personal life, even asking about his son and daughter, his consulting work for Vitetta, Kenney kept his hands on the desk. He spoke directly, and he had a way of making his answers sound unrehearsed.
“When I came into City Council when I was 32 years old, and I knew everything,” he joked. “I learned from people [in City Council] that I didn’t know everything.”
It’s common knowledge that politicians censor themselves. Their words are curated. Their appearances are combed over. Kenney may be no different, but there’s something to be said for his forthrightness. His outbursts of honesty and occasional swearing have been brushed off, by Kenney as innocuous, by the media as humorous.
Even his office -- its decor, its haphazard collection of items, from the mundane to the politically significant -- reflects something of this genuine Kenney.
He has switched his base a few times in City Hill, according to his chief of staff Deborah Mahler. They redid the walls and carpet in this room a few years ago. And while some of the kitsch touristy posters on the wall were gifts, Kenney has had a say in the majority of items that occupy room 330.
The fine art prints, Mahler said, were brought in by Kenney himself: one Jackson Pollack, four Van Goghs of varying sizes (yes, Starry Night among them), and the famous Vermeer painting of the turbaned Dutch girl with a pearl earring. Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary as a beam of holy light in Tanner’s The Annunciation. A large framed print of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, that iconic city scene painted from outside a long-gone “Phillies” diner, faces Kenney at his desk.
The recognizable artworks are intermixed with sports mementos. Signed hockey sticks rest below Nighthawks. There’s a display case worth of plaques and trophies right next to a casually placed Roxborough 21st Ward baseball hat. There’s an enthusiasm for Philly sports here that won’t be rivalled in the mayoral competition.
“A successful mayor is a good point guard,” he said. “[It’s] a person who can run the offense, assist other players in looking good, and the team wins. No one can do this by themselves.”
So what about the platform issues?
In the corner of the room, there’s a large dated lamppost flanked by two shovels, and what appears to be a stone lawn gnome. The post is an alley light from the early 1990s, when Kenney first entered the office. At that time the city wouldn’t replace the burnt out lightbulbs in the alley lights, so Kenney and his team took to the streets to replace the bulbs themselves.
Even though his base is in South Philadelphia, Kenney said that he’s been able to work at every neighborhood in the city. A photograph behind his desk shows a silhouetted firefighter emerging from a blaze. Going down the mantle, there’s a coffee table book covering four decades of music at The Electric Factory. A number of funeral bills are propped up mere feet from his family photos. The office doesn’t sugarcoat his pride for the union badges, either.
“There will be a unionized workforce in Philadelphia until the day I die,” he said, adding that both he and his father were union members.
He said he wants to work to rectify broken-windows policing as well. In opposition to stop-and-frisk policing policies, saying that there are “other things that 17,000 hours of police work could be doing each year.” He wants to make jobs accessible to first-time criminal offenders, and open up community relations with the police, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
And beyond the archival New York Times clip from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that hangs next to his staff’s coffee room, Kenney has a record with minority advocacy. Note the large poster of Octavio V. Catto, a 19th century Black educator and intellectual from Philadelphia, for whom Kenney helped erect a monument. Kenney said that one of his proudest moments as a city councilman revolved around justice for minorities:
“I take pride in standing up for people who need to be stood up for, even if it’s not in my best political interest.”
He cited his vouching for gay and lesbian city council members in the 1990s, those short-changed on health benefits and shared pensions. The backlash was a firestorm from his base, predominantly Catholic, but Kenney said that it was an issue of simple fairness.
Certain minorities, especially Latinos, have been largely left out of the political process. When prompted about how Kenney would connect with Philadelphia Latinos, he reached for immigration — an issue that ranked fourth on the scale of importance to Latino voters. Granted, it’s an issue that Kenney can say he’s worked on as a councilman. But it also seemed too easy. One of the funeral bills standing on the mantle behind his desk remembered Gloria Casarez, who died last November after a long fight against breast cancer. Casarez was a prominent LGBT activist and civil rights leader, born and raised in Philadelphia. She was the city’s first director of the Office of LGBT affairs. She was of Mexican heritage.
Then again, we can’t criticize the platforms of a man who isn’t technically running for mayor. We can, however, talk about his office. We can imagine what his mayor’s office might look like. Will it have the lawn gnome in the corner, or the medieval castle on his desk? How will the offbeat personality of Jim Kenney translate for the city?