Fifteen days before Philadelphia voters decide which Democratic mayoral candidate advances to the general election, Jim Kenney found himself beseiged by an attack ad and some pointed questions from his opponents at the Next Mayor debate.
So, what did the former city councilman from South Philly do in front of several hundred people at the Temple Performing Arts Center?
He said opponent Anthony Hardy Williams is a Harrisburg outlier for fighting to bring funding home to Philly schools, admitted his guilty pleasure is eating pepperoni pizza after 11 p.m. and, among other things, confessed that Doug Oliver is a “handsome” man.
Such was the feisty/fun duality of Tuesday night’s forum, which was brought to voters by Next Mayor Project partners WHYY/NewsWorks, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.com, Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism, Committee of Seventy, WURD 900-AM, Young Involved Philadelphia and Technical.ly Philly.
Serious policy-focused questions from co-moderators Dave Davies (WHYY senior reporter) and Sandra Shea (Daily News editorial page editor) centered on raising taxes to fund schools, finding solutions to the city’s pension-fund woes, property tax abatements, police/community relations and the question of whether Philly really is Baltimore.
The latter two brought about a one-sided Williams/Kenney dustup.
After Kenney reiterated his thought that city police officers should learn civil-rights history (particularly that of Selma, Ala.), Williams angrily shot back. “That is insulting to a generation who know the significance of Selma,” he said, before declaring that his opponent’s marijuana decriminalization effort “is not about some kid smoking weed … who has to pee in a cup and then get fired. This is about the truth. The truth is we need to take action, not talk about it.”
Breaking the combative flow was a “What’s your guilty pleasure?” question that saw the following admissions:
Williams gives his grandson ice cream when his daughter isn’t looking.
Doug Oliver enjoys mindless television like “Empire” and “Being Mary Jane.”
Lynne Abraham loves “to go to Lore’s Chocolate on 7th between Chestnut and Market on the west side of the street … It smells like heaven.”
Milton Street grinds up leafy vegetables knowing full well that the process is loud enough for his neighbors to hear.
Nelson Diaz had been an empty nester, but his family from Puerto Rico moved in 13 years ago and has cut up a lot of oranges for him to eat in the time since.
When it comes to tax abatements, Oliver agrees with using them for projects “in the public’s best interest,” while Diaz didn’t much like cutting breaks for stadiums to be built because, “If the Eagles had left, we’d have had another Eagles team here.”
Seemingly tired of being pigeonholed as the novice upstart, Oliver noted that his time as Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesman and senior vice president at Philadelphia Gas Works left him with “more recent executive experience than anyone else on this stage.”
Street said “I don’t got a clue” how to fix the pension problem, but that he would hire the best minds to help him in City Hall, because you might as well be “selling sky rocks” if you don’t surround yourself with experts. He also noted that it’s unfair to paint the men and women of the Philadelphia Police Department with a broad brush when a minority of its members are involved in malfeasance. He also maintained that he “never violated the public trust” amid airport-contract actions during a heated exchange with Davies.
Questioning one another
Abraham said she would release the two years of tax returns that had previously gone unreleased when candidates made theirs public.
That Abraham statement came at the beginning of a candidates-ask-candidates-questions segment that saw Street decline to do so and the former district attorney, Diaz, Williams and Oliver turn their attention again to Kenney, who is believed to be the front runner in a race devoid of independent polling.
Abraham confronted him about the impact of “dark money” on the campaign. (Kenney: How can it be dark money if it’s constantly reported on? And, hey, why haven’t you released your taxes?)
Diaz sought answers about an endorsement that brought Kenney and embattled council candidate Manny Morales into the same photograph (Kenney: Manny “photobombed,” and sorry they changed their mind about endorsing you.)
Williams went after Kenney’s extracouncil work functions on the Independence Blue Cross board and with the architectural firm Vitetta. (He’s said he learned a lot about healthcare but would resign his seat if elected, and the firm hasn’t sought city projects in years.)
Those exchanges elicited a slew of “fact check” emails from the Kenney camp and accusatory texts and emails from the other campaigns saying the responses did not pass their fact checking. (For example: C’mon, does this really look like a photobomb?)
If Kenney was flustered by the negative attention, he didn’t belie a trace of it when it was his turn to ask a question of a candidate.
He could have fired back, but he chose to ask a softer question of an uncritical Oliver, who returned the gesture.
Rather than diving deep on policy, Oliver wanted Kenney to expand on his comment during the Fox29 debate that he was the most likely candidate to get Kenney’s vote if he weren’t himself running for mayor.
The Arts Center filled with laughter when Kenney stated that he wasn’t, in fact, trying to date the “handsome” Oliver.
“Had to ask him,” Oliver campaign spokesman Mustafa Rashed explained afterwards.
Oh yeah, they’ll be back at it again today, when 6ABC hosts its mayoral debate at 7 p.m.