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Is Jim Kenney Becoming Donald Trump?

In defending his soda tax, the Mayor goes into all-out attack mode. Ring any bells?

First, the evil-doer was PepsiCo. When the soda conglomerate —“Big Soda” in Jim Kenney parlance—announced 80 to 100 layoffs at area distribution plants due to the effects of the soda tax, Mayor Kenney and his minions questioned Pepsi’s intentions. “[Beverage companies] are so committed to stopping this tax from spreading to other cities, that they are not only passing the tax they should be paying onto their customer, they are actually willing to threaten working men and women’s jobs rather than marginally reduce their seven figure bonuses,” said Kenney.

Next came ShopRite grocer Jeff Brown, who has long brought healthy, fresh, affordable food into Philadelphia’s food deserts—and who once was singled out by President Obama during a State of the Union address. In other words, Brown has spent a career serving the heart of Kenney’s constituency. Surely he’d be harder to vilify than the suits peddling sugary soda? Yet, when Brown spoke out against the tax—citing a 15 percent bottom line downturn—the Mayor similarly questioned Brown’s motives: “From the retailer side, guys like Jeff Brown, he just opened a store inside the city limits,” Kenney said, neglecting to mention that the planning for Brown’s new Fresh Grocer on Monument Road predated even the proposal of a soda tax. “He’s talking on one hand about cutting employee hours, and on the other hand he’s opening a new store.” (A City Hall insider reports that the Mayor recently reached out to Brown; the conversation did not go well).

This week, Temple University found itself in Kenney’s crosshairs, after its Chief Financial Officer attributed the school’s increase in boarding costs to what he identified as a $400,000 per semester cost due to the tax. As in the other cases, Kenney responded as if he were a certain orange-haired, sneering chief executive, attacking the messenger. Temple wasn’t reacting to a new economic reality, the Mayor’s office would have us believe; it was being greedy.

It’s common to hear nowadays just how President Trump is betraying his working class voters, now that we see the degree to which Trumpcare will transfer wealth up to the 1 percent. It would be remiss not to hold Kenney to the same scrutiny, now that it’s becoming clear that his soda tax is disproportionately and adversely affecting his working class constituency.

“Universities still want to pay for their ever-growing administrative salaries and new, expensive buildings and amenities,” said Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, who, Kellyanne Conway to Kenney’s Trump, made sure to mention the school’s “new 24-story dorm” that “includes flat screen TVs.” She went so far as to point out the school is hoping to build an on-campus football stadium—something for which they’d need the Mayor’s help.

It was knee-jerk, Trump-like bullying, and it worked: Within hours, Temple released a statement saying they’d take another look at their calculations, essentially backing down. It reminded me of when, prior to the passage of the soda tax, Kenney showed up to a meeting with soda bottler honcho Harold Honickman with labor leader John Dougherty by his side. Honickman might have been forgiven had he inferred from Johnny Doc’s presence an ominous message: Nice little soda bottling operation you have here, it would be a shame if something were to happen to it. The Kenney playbook, it seems—not unlike the President’s—is not to find consensus, but to hunker down, attack, bully, and spin.

The more I think about it, the more the Trump analogy holds. Both the Mayor and the President seem not to be reveling in their jobs. Kenney’s joylessness prompted former Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell to wonder whatever happened to the “Happy Warrior;” Trump’s perpetual scowl has unleashed anger in the land, and—on the positive side—given us a helluva impersonation by Alec Baldwin.

Moreover, both men are practiced at the art of the political bait and switch. Yes, Jim Kenney campaigned on funding Pre-K, something many of us were excited to support. But throughout the campaign, the funding mechanism was to be zero-based budgeting, not a new, regressive tax on his voters. It’s common to hear nowadays just how President Trump is betraying his working class voters, now that we see the degree to which Trumpcare will transfer wealth up to the 1 percent. It would be remiss not to hold Kenney to the same scrutiny, now that it’s becoming clear that his soda tax is disproportionately and adversely affecting his working class constituency.

Up until now, Kenney’s answer to this critique has been more spin, as when, on the night PepsiCo announced its layoffs, the Mayor’s team rushed out a press release, detailing that the city’s Pre-K program had created 191 teaching positions, 147 of which are full-time, at an average wage of $14.72 an hour—hardly equivalent to the unionized jobs with full-time benefits imperiled by the tax.

I retain hope because, in his life on the public stage, Jim Kenney—unlike the president—has shown a capacity to grow. He ran a campaign that skillfully held together a fragile coalition of competing big-city interests; he’s brought outsider critics into government—people like Chief Integrity Officer Ellen Kaplan and former director of pre-K Anne Gemmel—indicating he can be open to other voices.

You might think a Mayor would react to the specter of job losses resulting from his tax policies with some introspection, and I’m not giving up hope that Jim Kenney will get there, that he will get past the denial, that he will acknowledge that any one job loss is one job loss too many and that there have been some unintended consequences in real people’s lives as a result of a policy choice he’s made.

I retain that hope because, in his life on the public stage, Jim Kenney—unlike the president—has shown a capacity to grow. He ran a campaign that skillfully held together a fragile coalition of competing big-city interests; he’s brought outsider critics into government—people like Chief Integrity Officer Ellen Kaplan and former director of pre-K Anne Gemmel—indicating he can be open to other voices; his plan to cap I-95 and build a new waterfront park at Penn’s Landing stands out from his otherwise small-ball agenda and speaks to a bold muscle one wishes he’d flex a bit more.

But if we’re to get that Jim Kenney, one with vision and bold purpose, the Mayor will first have to slay his inner Trump. He’ll have to brighten up, have some fun, and say goodbye to the attacks and spin. Settling scores and bullying those with whom you disagree is not leadership. What is? Sometimes, it’s working with your critics to serve the common good.

Photo header via Wikipedia. Photo illustration by The Citizen.

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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