Now that it’s clear Jim Kenney will become Philadelphia’s next mayor, it’s time to get a few things off my chest.
“Being mayor of a big city is harder than being president,” a sage of city hall once told me. The late Councilman Thacher Longstreth never held either job, but what he meant was that a mayor has to deal with big, intractable problems with no money in a political minefield, and, unlike the president, he doesn’t have a big staff to help him.
With that in mind, I have some unsolicited advice for Mayor-elect Kenney, whom I’ve known at least since 1988. I know we go back that far because I still remember him chewing me out early that year about a political story I’d written.
Congratulations, I guess. I know you have a healthy respect for the task that awaits, since you’ve watched three mayors wrestle with the challenges of the office up close. Maybe you know everything I have to tell you, but I’m going to tell you anyway:
1. Find people who get things done. You have to fill a few dozen top jobs in the next few weeks, and nothing is more important than those decisions. You want people with ideas, sure. But just as important, you want executives with a proven ability to plow through the obstacles that arise constantly in government – tight budgets, procurement rules, union contracts, civil service procedures, political fights and bureaucratic inertia. In making these hires, value the word of people you trust over great resumes from distant places.
2. Let people do their jobs. It’s scary to delegate things that can sink you, but the government is too big for you to run. Mayors that don’t share information and power find that stuff stops moving. Initiatives stall while managers wait for approval or direction, leading to missed opportunities and a demoralized staff.
3. Hold your managers accountable. This may be the hardest part. You need to build a system that gives you real information about what departments are doing and not doing, not some process that requires them to deliver a quarterly power point presentation. I’ve seen this done well, but it requires great people at the operational center of the government, wherever you chose to locate it.
4. Build in long-term thinking. You already know from the past six months that hundreds of people want a piece of your attention every week. Once you’re in office, the demands will only grow on you and your staff. It’s easy for the government to do nothing but react to all the crap coming its way. So create a unit of smart people whose job is not to deal with the crisis of the month, but to think a year or more down the road, to think strategically about what needs to happen, and build approaches to getting those things moving. Once these people are in place, you have to pay attention to them.
5. Mind the politics. Mind the politics. Mind the politics. You know that if you fail at this, all is lost. Great ideas aren’t enough. You have to deal with other political players as they are and consider the interests they represent. Part of this you learned from a master, former state Senator Vince Fumo – you never stop raising money, and you use it to reward friends, build alliances, and create levers of power. And there’s the part you learned from Ed Rendell, to constantly share credit and feed egos. His care and feeding of City Council relationships was critical to his success. At the same time, you can’t be a pushover. Accommodate when you have to, but make it clear there’s a line you won’t cross, and consequences when your trust is betrayed.
6. Build in some stress relief. Some politicians think they thrive on round-the-clock work, then end up throwing chairs in their offices. You’ve always spoken your mind to a fault, and if you grind yourself to exhaustion you’re liable to blurt something nobody but we jackals of the media want to hear. Work out at the gym, watch a ballgame with a glass of wine, spend an hour reading poetry, whatever. Take care of yourself.
7. Be our leader. The stuff above is about making the government work. But you also have to raise our spirits, comfort us in tragedy, and inspire us to greater things. People like you, in part because you lack pretense. Whether you’re chuckling or cranky, you’re a real guy. Now, when the occasion demands, you’ll have to inhabit a larger space, be the Everyman who moves us. You can do it, if you’re true to yourself.