Will Kenney’s big win enable him to say ‘no’ when he has to?

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 Jim Kenney celebrates his landslide victory in the Democratic-mayoral primary. (Stephanie Aaronson/via The Next Mayor partnership)

Jim Kenney celebrates his landslide victory in the Democratic-mayoral primary. (Stephanie Aaronson/via The Next Mayor partnership)

So, Jim Kenney it is.

To observe the niceties, I’ll duly note that Philadelphia will not officially elect its new mayor until November. But, being real, Jim Kenney it is. 

A weird mayoral campaign produced a thumping electoral victory for the former councilman. When you get not just a plurality but a majority among a six-person field, that’s not just a victory. It’s a mandate. It’s leverage.

But a mandate to do what? Leverage to do what? That’s not exactly clear.

You could never accuse the candidates in the 2015 Democratic primary of failing to submit themselves for public inspection. They showed up for an exhausting cavalcade of public forums, answering literally hundreds of questions about everything from police behavior to bicycle lanes. Meanwhile, negative ads and gutter tactics were kept to a surprising minimum.

This campaign should have been a policy wonk’s delight. Well, I’m a wonk … and I found it oddly disappointing.

Let me hasten to add, I’m not solely or even primarility blaming the candidates for this.

As a civic collective, we might want to rethink how we do this election forum thing. Forcing candidates to run hither and yon each day to attend an endless procession of interest-group forums that amount to people saying, “Here’s our narrow agenda, salute it” – well, maybe that’s not a great way to clarify big differences, or draw out big ideas.

Go ahead: Name one big, future-shaping idea you heard during this campaign. … Didn’t think so.

Take none of this as a critique of Jim Kenney. I’ve known him a long time and always admired his mix of policy smarts and neighborhood feel.  He accomplished more than the norm in the vague role of council member at large. 

And he ran a smart, disciplined campaign. That doesn’t always mean a person will be a great manager of an actual government (George W. Bush was a fabulous campaigner), but as a harbinger it sure beats running a sloppy, ill-focused vote-seeking operation.

What worries me, and a lot of people I spoke to during the campaign, is not Jim Kenney, but the company his campaign kept, namely eletricians union power broker John Dougherty.

Legit concern,  but I think Kenney’s whopping victory helps him there. No special interest can credibly come to him once he’s mayor and go: “Look, pal, we dragged you over the finish line …”

I worry more about the support he got from all the government worker unions, including the teachers.

To be clear: Those workers have every right to unionize and advocate. But a mayor can’t privilege their interests, which often come into conflict with taxpayers’ interests and the goal of innovation.

A city government that sees its primary role as protecting the jobs of the people who work for it is a city government that’s in trouble.

Jim Kenney is easily smart enough to know that.

Whether he’ll have the inner steel to act on that knowledge, when it means angering those who backed him, will be one of the fascinating stories to watch.

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