Yesterday, City Councilman Allan Domb introduced a long-overdue resolution to bring term limits to City Council. As I noted last month, imposing term limits on career politicians has been trending throughout the country. Here, we’re the only big city in America that term limits our mayor and not the legislative body he has to work with. Moreover, in the last 35 years, only 13 incumbent Council members who had served a full four-year term in Philly have lost their seats to a challenger. We don’t have elections. We have coronations.
Domb’s resolution grandfathers in current members and would limit all newly-elected ones to three four-year terms of service. No fewer than seven current Council members would be prohibited from seeking reelection this time around had such limits been in effect when they were first voted into office.
But before you start to think there’s a populist wave coming to Moscow on the Delaware, slow your roll. Domb’s resolution needs 12 votes from Council to get on the May ballot as a voter referendum. And that ain’t happening. Domb got the support of two colleagues—Mark Squilla and Helen Gym—as cosponsors, and at least five other Council members have already rejected the idea out of hand.
But this is a significant moment nonetheless. One, because subjecting Council to term limits is a serious policy proposal from a body that has yet to hold a hearing on our pension crisis but saw fit to pass a resolution barring R. Kelly from our city limits. And, two: Because it gives Domb a prominent issue.
Earlier this week, Domb held a successful fundraiser, and one City Hall insider speculated that, after the John Dougherty indictment, Kenney might be vulnerable to a challenge by a self-funder like Domb.
In the last few days, I started hearing rumblings that Domb was seriously considering challenging Mayor Kenney in May’s primary. Earlier this week, he held a successful fundraiser, and one City Hall insider speculated that, after the John Dougherty indictment, Kenney might be vulnerable to a challenge by a self-funder like Domb, provided an independent expenditure group comes along to blanket the airwaves with negative Kenney ads.
Then, once Kenney’s poll numbers come down—his name recognition is quite high, as you’d suspect—the self-funder could take the high road and run a thoughtful campaign that addresses the issues Kenney is vulnerable on with different groups throughout the city: Poverty, an exploding murder rate, ever-increasing taxes, stop-and-frisk, sanctuary cities, safe-injection, the Rizzo statue.
Then again, this is Philly, where incumbents don’t lose. We once had a mayor who dropped a bomb on a neighborhood in the city, and he got re-elected. But change is in the air more than ever before, as the 2017 elections of Larry Krasner and Rebecca Rhynhart illustrated. Is this Domb’s moment? With the election all of three months away, we’ll soon find out if Domb will have the guts to dive in.
Remember, Domb would have to resign to run, which just may be the type of swashbuckling move the electorate wants to see. There’s a precedent: Back in 2007, then-Councilman Michael Nutter resigned his Council seat and bet it all on winning the Democratic primary when Chaka Fattah, now on vacation in an orange jumpsuit, looked like a shoo-in. Granted, that was an open seat, but that move alone helped raise Nutter’s stature. Voters, it turns out, want to vote for candidates who say WTF and don’t hold their fingers to the wind.
So let’s game out this race. Let’s say Alan Butkovitz, Tony Williams and Domb all challenge Kenney. Butko is already announced, and I’m told Williams will announce by the end of the month. First, let’s pause and acknowledge how cool it is to be talking about having a competitive primary when an incumbent is running for reelection. A public debate around a vision for Philadelphia is nothing but good for our civic health, and it will be good for Kenney if he emerges victorious. Second: Who gets what votes?
Let’s pause and acknowledge how cool it is to be talking about having a competitive primary when an incumbent is running for reelection. A public debate around a vision for Philadelphia is nothing but good for our civic health, and it will be good for Kenney if he emerges victorious.
Let’s stipulate that any reelection is a referendum on the incumbent, and that Kenney’s poll numbers are respectable, somewhere in the mid to high 50s, I’m told. He has high name ID and is generally well-liked. But what happens if the negative ads start running? I keep coming back to not knowing precisely where Kenney’s base is, especially now that Dougherty might not be able to deliver for him as in the past.
Remember, in 2015, with the endorsement of Dwight Evans and Marian Tasco, Kenney got more black votes than Tony Williams. Does he hang onto them, after not making a dent in the poverty rate, after not curtailing stop-and-frisk, as he’d pledged, and after posting a subpar minority hiring record inside City Hall? It’s likely that black political leaders like Evans and Tasco will hold their noses and support Kenney, because what they really want is someone like Cherelle Parker to become mayor in 2023. But what will the everyday African-American voter do? Has Jim Kenney made his or her life appreciably better, enough to rehire him?
Kenney performed decently in Center City and University City in 2015, but that’s likely where Domb will be strongest. In South Philly—what was once Kenney’s base—the tax increases, property assessments, and his talk of moving the Rizzo statue may have all hurt the mayor. Remember, his hand-picked candidate for Congress, Rich Lazer, underperformed there en route to a decisive loss. In South Philly and in the Northeast, can Butkovitz pick off enough working class votes to depress Kenney’s totals?
As he faces the prospect of a real challenge, does Jim Kenney really want to be mayor? He often tells complete strangers how much he hates the job. Now he just might have to fight like hell to keep a job he sure spends a lot of time complaining about.
It’s hard to get a handle on how this field will play out, but this much seems clear: Domb and Butkovitz are likely to attract votes that, were they not in the race, would probably go for Kenney. And Tony Williams is likely to attract votes that, were he not in the race, would also probably default to Kenney.
That’s why this reelection is so dicey for the Mayor. And then there’s this: As he faces the prospect of a real challenge, does Jim Kenney really want to be mayor? He often tells complete strangers how much he hates the job. Now he just might have to fight like hell to keep a job he sure spends a lot of time complaining about.
Let’s not forget Williams. By his own admission, the State Senator ran a desultory campaign in 2015. Expect him to be more aggressive this time out. Earlier this week, his spokeswoman, the wily Barbara Grant, released a politically clever statement: “Senator Anthony Williams will not accept donations from Local 98 or any persons identified as co-conspirators in the indictment,” she said. “Receiving contributions from sources charged with this kind of corruption just gives citizens more reason to distrust leaders charged with protecting the public interest.”
I hear that one of the sharpest political minds in our city has broken from Kenney and is advising the Williams campaign. Remarkably, former Mayor John Street never lost an election—and Grant’s statement reminded me of a Street chess move. In an effort to squeeze Kenney’s coffers, Williams is trying to shame the Mayor into not accepting Local 98 money.
Fasten your seat belts. This could get interesting.