Poised to be next Philadelphia mayor, with focus on poverty

AP News
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Posted: Oct 29, 2015 5:10 PM
Poised to be next Philadelphia mayor, with focus on poverty

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jim Kenney is trying hard not to act like he's already won.

The former Philadelphia city councilman — a tough-talking Democrat who made waves last year for calling New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie out on Twitter — is carefully making his way through the last days before a mayoral election widely seen as a coronation in a city where his party has a 7-to-1 voter registration edge over Republicans.

In public, he acts like a candidate primed for a tough fight, with a full slate of campaign stops ahead of Tuesday's vote in the nation's fifth-largest city. One night last week, he was scheduled to speak at a Latino event and later attend a LGBT group's pub crawl — a reflection of his diverse and widespread support.

But behind closed doors, the 57-year-old Kenney's "ifs" turn to "whens" as he plots out his administration and its liberal agenda — including universal prekindergarten and a war on poverty. He and his staff have been meeting regularly since his victory in the May primary.

"We have to do that somewhat under the radar screen because you don't want to make it look like you're assuming you're going to be successful," Kenney said in a recent interview. "But you can't really do this in two months. It's too many positions and too big of an organization."

The next mayor will take over from term-limited Mayor Michael Nutter in January in a city of extremes — booming downtown development, a downward trend in violent crime and national praise as a top tourist destination while 26.3 percent of residents live in poverty and scores of children are left unprepared by underfunded, underperforming schools.

Kenney sees universal pre-K, a hallmark of fellow liberal Bill de Blasio's first year as New York City's mayor, as a prong in his attack on poverty and an investment in neighborhoods long suffering from high joblessness and crime.

"If you turn a person from a drain into a fountain by educating them properly and giving them opportunities and allowing them to blossom, you're going to wind up with a taxpayer and not an inmate in the county prison," Kenney said.

Kenney won the primary by more than 2-to-1 with the support of labor unions and a coalition of teachers, public school parents, the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and immigrant groups.

The feeling that Kenney's election is a foregone conclusion irks his Republican opponent, Melissa Murray Bailey. Independents James Foster and Boris Kindij and Social Workers Party candidate Osborne Hart are also on the ballot.

"I don't think there's been one article written that doesn't call out that there's no chance," Murray Bailey, 36, said. "It doesn't give anybody a reason to believe that their vote in the other direction will have any impact."

As a city councilman, Kenney successfully backed marijuana decriminalization and supported a bill authorizing added penalties for gender identity and sexual orientation hate crimes. He has said he supported keeping Philadelphia as a sanctuary city for immigrants who entered the country illegally.

Last winter, Kenney garnered national attention for blasting Christie, leader of the state across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, in a pair of tweets after seeing him in Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' box during an Eagles home game. The messages instantly endeared him to Eagles fans.

"He's a wonderful mix of the old Philadelphia and the new Philadelphia," said Randall Miller, a professor at the city's St. Joseph's University. "It's a rare mix that might create great expectations that Kenney as mayor will never be able to realize — that there's going to be something for everybody and it's all going to be good."

Murray Bailey, a registered Democrat until last year, is trying to reach those potential voters by going door-to-door and talking to community groups in neighborhoods where she says politicians haven't ventured in decades. The business executive doesn't have the fundraising or outside backing to spread her message through mass media advertising.

"It's hard as hell," Murray Bailey said. "We call it the machine. It really is a machine. I'm just a regular person out here trying to make a difference."