Once friends, Nutter and Kenney at odds

When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed a bill lowering the city’s parking tax last week, he killed a measure sponsored by Jim Kenney, for years his closest friend and ally on Council.

But their battle over the parking tax is just the latest step in the deterioration of the 30-year relationship between the two prominent Democrats.

At this point, they’re no longer talking.

Nutter and Kenney entered City Council in 1992, and rose through the ranks together. Their relationship goes back even farther. They were at St. Joe’s Prep together, just one class apart, in the 1970s.

 

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Jim Kenney looked forward to finally having a collaborative relationship with the mayor’s office. (Nathaniel Hamilton/For NewsWorks)

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When Michael Nutter became mayor in 2008, Kenney was buoyant. (AP Photo)

But when the mayor was considering a veto of Kenney’s parking tax bill, they didn’t even talk about it.

“That would require the councilman to take my phone call,” Nutter said when asked about it in an interview. Nutter said he’s called Kenney repeatedly about the issue, and that Kenney simply won’t return his calls.

When Nutter became mayor in 2008, Kenney was buoyant. Both men had had contentious relationships with former Mayor John Street. Kenney looked forward to finally having a collaborative relationship with the mayor’s office. And Nutter knew he could count on his friend for support in Council.

What happened?

An ‘expensive friendship’

“I don’t know, frankly,” Kenney said in an interview last week. “It’s just very difficult being for three and a half years the only person to carry his water here (in City Council). It’s a very expensive friendship.”

It’s expensive, Kenney said, because though he would defend some of Nutter’s unpopular positions, such as budget cuts or killing the DROP retirement program, to his fellow Council members, and Nutter wouldn’t give him the kind of information and support that made him feel a part of a team.

What does Nutter think happened?

“I’m not exactly sure,” he said. “I mean, you know, in the day-to-day course of activities, I’m sure possibly I may have done something to upset the councilman, but I’d like to talk to him about that,” said the mayor.

Dan McElhatton, a former Council member who knows both men well, said he’s seen the relationship deteriorate since Nutter became mayor.

“I think Kenney started seeing Nutter as not respecting Council in the same way that Nutter demanded the respect when he was there,” McElhatton said.

Kenney said Nutter and his team seem to disdain politics, to the point of ignoring legitimate requests by Council members on behalf of constituents.

“I don’t understand the mindset,” Kenney said. “I mean, it was easier dealing with John Street, believe it or not. As much as I fought with him, he would at least transactionally do something with you.”

Nutter said he works with Kenney and other Council members when he can. He noted, for example, that he’s supporting Kenney’s efforts to build a memorial honoring civil rights leader Octavius Catto.

A matter of tough decisions

“There may be some times where his idea, or someone’s idea, just doesn’t work for some reason.” Nutter said. “That doesn’t mean we’re resistant to change and accommodation. In this job, I have to make some tough decisions, and the toughest ones often involve my friends.”

Where does that leave them?

Nutter is making plans for a second term. Kenney could run for mayor in four years, and working with other Council members might matter more to him now than peace with the mayor.

Nutter says he hopes things get better.

“Sometimes in any relationship, you go through rough patches,” Nutter said. “I want to have a good, positive personal and professional relationship with him, and I’m going to work to that end.”

Kenney, on the other hand, seems to have moved on. Asked if he lamented the loss of the personal relationship, he said, “Yeah, kind of. But it was stressful. And I feel less stressed to not have the constant ongoing back and forth.”

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