UPDATED: Kenney makes history – will it matter?

     State Rep. Dwight Evans, left, shakes mayoral candidate Jim Kenney's hand at Monday morning's endorsement event in West Oak Lane. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    State Rep. Dwight Evans, left, shakes mayoral candidate Jim Kenney's hand at Monday morning's endorsement event in West Oak Lane. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    This is historic.

    I’ve been covering Philadelphia mayoral elections since 1983, and not once in those 32 years can I remember a white mayoral candidate running against a well-known black candidate in a competitive primary getting multiple endorsements from African-American elected officials.

    But Monday, former City Councilman Jim Kenney, who grew up in South Philadelphia, got the backing of state Reps. Dwight Evans, Cherelle Parker and Stephen Kinsey, as well as Councilwomen Marian Tasco and Cindy Bass, along with some ward leaders from Northwest Philadelphia.

    If you follow Philly politics at all, you’ll know that that list includes some prominent names: Evans was once a major power in Harrisburg and ran for mayor twice. Parker chairs Philadelphia’s State House delegation.

    Tasco, a City Council member for 28 years, has contended for the Council presidency.

    They chose Kenney over state Sen. Anthony Williams, an African-American whose father, the late state Sen. Hardy Williams, was a pioneer of the independent black political movement of the 1970s.

    The crew endorsing Kenney is part of a faction of the Democratic Party known as the Northwest Coalition, a group of progressive black officials who’ve been a loose alliance for decades.One who used to be a leader of the group is George Burrell, who served in City Council and ran for mayor in 1991 with the coalition’s support. Burrell, a regular analyst on 6abc’s Inside Story, made it clear on Sunday’s show he disapproved of his former allies’ endorsement of Kenney.

    “I’m sure people like [the late Congressman] Bill Gray and [the late state Rep.] Dave Richardson, who helped these people get into office so that African-Americans would have a seat at the table, are turning over in their graves that they’re voluntarily going to give up that seat,” Burrell said.

    What happened here?Veterans of city politics will tell you there have long been tensions within the African-American political leadership between the Northwest group, generally regarded as more middle class and more connected to white liberals, and West Philadelphia leaders of a poorer, working-class following.

    Beyond that history, I was told that Williams didn’t do a good job of tending to some political relationships, and that Evans, in particular, regarded Williams as a someone he’d schooled in politics who is undeserving of the mayoral mantle.

    Evans scoffed at the idea, saying the endorsement was simply about merit. Northwest leaders held a public mayoral forum in January, he said, and individual elected officials of the group had met with most of the mayoral candidates.

    Evans said this wasn’t about personal grudges or rivalries, but who would make the best mayor.

    I reached out yesterday to John White, another former prominent member of the Northwest Coalition. He held Tasco’s Council seat in the ’80s, was state Department of Welfare secretary and ran for mayor in 1999. He wasn’t pleased with the endorsement either.

    He said the decision to endorse Kenney rather than Williams or former PGW executive Doug Oliver has broad implications.

    “I think there’s going to be some serious backlash because of this,” White told me. “But the consequences really go far beyond the mayor’s race.”

    White said his concern wasn’t about the racial identity of the candidate endorsed, but about the expanding power of Electricians Local 98 leader John Dougherty. Kenney, White said, is Dougherty’s choice for mayor, and he’ll now add to his influence in City Council and the city court system the support of “the previously viewed progressive, energetic wing of the African-American political community.”

    Another politically active Democrat I spoke to said there’s widespread talk that the support of Bass and Parker stemmed from a promise of financial support for their present and future campaigns from Dougherty.

    Dougherty’s spokesman didn’t respond to my inquiry about this, but Bass and Parker both strenuously denied it.

    “That’s absurd and it’s insulting,” Bass told me. “I’ve never been for sale. I’ve never been bought, and I’d like to add some expletives to that.”

    She told me she’d never had a conversation with Dougherty or anyone on his behalf about financial help.

    Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for the Kenney campaign, challenged the idea that Kenney’s election means expanded power for Dougherty.

    “Jim doesn’t ‘belong’ to anyone,” Hitt said, “and those who say otherwise are trying to reduce the significance of the broad, diverse coalition he’s brought together.”

    The degree of Dougherty’s support for Kenney is unclear. His union’s political fund was the primary donor last year to a super PAC that’s now airing TV ads supporting Kenney, but it’s not yet clear how much of the money for that ad campaign comes from Dougherty’s union.

    Does it matter?

    Most endorsements by elected officials aren’t all that meaningful because, as Ed Rendell has often said, nobody can bestow his or her popularity on someone else.

    But this level of support from African-American leaders is meaningful for a guy like Kenney, a South Philadelphia rowhouse kid who came of age in the political machine of state Sen. Vince Fumo.

    There’s reason to doubt that Evans or Tasco can convince working-class African-Americans to actually vote for Kenney in numbers, but when a trusted leader brings somebody new into your neighborhood, you at least give them a hearing.

    And a reasonable chunk of African-American votes could matter for Kenney in a close election. It’s estimated that Rendell got between 15 and 20 percent of the black vote in the 1991 Democratic primary against two well-known black candidates, and it helped.

    The endorsements can at least puncture the sense that Williams is the inevitable choice among African-Americans and slow his progress a bit. 

    And more…

    UPDATE: A couple of readers have noted that this isn’t the first time a black elected official endorsed a candidate in a competitive mayoral primary. It’s true.

    Ironically one of them is the late State Sen. Hardy Williams, father of the current candidate. He endorsed Ed Rendell in the 1991 primary over two well-known black candidates.

    And in 2007, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell backed Tom Knox in the Democratic primary.

    As I said above, this is the first time I know of we’ve seen multiple African-American elected officials backing a white candidate against a well-known black candidate in a competitive race.

    I placed a call to the Williams campaign for comment on the endorsement. Spokesman Al Butler offered this, from Williams:

    “I was in the Northwest this weekend and received a warm welcome in every neighborhood I visited. Voters are hearing that we want quality schools for every child and that I have bought $250 million to Philadelphia for all public schools. Educating our children, bringing jobs to our residents and protecting our neighborhoods—this is my focus and is a message that is connecting with people across the city including the Northwest.”

    Our own Brian Hickey spoke to Williams as he was touring the Reading Terminal, asked if he was surprised that Evans would endorse Kenney.

    “I have worked closely with him as political ally on a number of issues,” Williams said. “When he became chairman of appropriations, I was part of a delegation that actually supported him against another person in Philadelphia. I was part of a delegation that, when he ran for lieutenant governor, worked for him. I was part of a delegation that, when he ran for mayor, picked him over other people. So, I got to see up close the politics that, sometimes, Rep. Evans engages in, so I can’t say I was surprised.”

    Thanks to WPVI for sharing the audio from 6abc’s Inside Story. It airs Sundays at 11:30 am.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.