Jim Kenney’s now-infamous comments after the Ben Franklin Parkway shooting on the night of July Fourth — “I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time. I’ll be happy when I’m not here, when I’m not mayor, and I can enjoy some stuff” — conjured what has come to be known as the Kinsley gaffe.
The brilliant journalist Michael Kinsley coined the term in 1984, defining such a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Kinsley elaborated on the phenomenon in 2007:
It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.
How dead-on is that? After all, on the evening of July 4, Kenney’s spin broke down. And there we were, the media and aghast elected leaders alike, all playing the role of Captain Renault in Casablanca — the local constable who is shocked, just shocked to learn that gambling is going on in Rick’s Cafe, even as he is handed his own winnings.
Yes, Jim Kenney effectively quit on his city, and, yes, Councilmembers Domb and Green and State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta (whom Kenney did not endorse in the U.S. Senate primary) were justifiably outraged in calling for his resignation. How can one lead a city in crisis when said leader is preoccupied with how its challenges affect him?
“There’s not an event or a day where I don’t lay on my back at night and wonder and worry about stuff,” he said during his July 4 rant. “So everything we have in the city over the last seven years, I worry about. I don’t enjoy the Fourth of July, I don’t enjoy the Democratic Convention, I don’t enjoy the NFL Draft. I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time.” Not exactly Churchillian, huh?
At a time when his city is under siege, our leader is feeling sorry for himself, and violating one of the core tenets of leadership delineated by the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, “A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance — unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”
The next day, Kenney tried to “walk back” his comments — that’s the term of art for when politicians insult your intelligence by trying to spin their gaffes, as per Kinsley — but he couldn’t even do that adroitly.
Ever the Trump-like victim, the mayor couldn’t help but reiterate how hard the tsunami of crises he’s had to face have been not on you but on him, from Covid to the post-George Floyd unrest to the murder epidemic under his watch. “Being mayor comes with a lot of restless nights, so I am looking forward to a good night’s sleep, ” he said, the inverse of the type of “I feel your pain” politics so expertly practiced by the likes of Bill Clinton and Ed Rendell back in the day.
How do we know that Kenney’s walk-back was spin, and that his initial exasperation, his waving of the white flag, his refusal to lead in a time of crisis was the truly heartfelt message, and not just some intemperate venting? Because he has told us so many times ever since he was first elected in 2015.
Yes, even before all the crises of his second term, Jim Kenney would tell anyone who would listen how much he disliked being mayor and how powerless he was to make change. (Remember his “I’m responsible for — the government is responsible — for things I can’t control,” interview last year?)
Rather than a complainer-in-chief, we need someone to paint a vision for reversing all that. “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them,” said Dr. Robert Jarvik.
In that interview, as well as in private interactions, Kenney has often seemed irritated or downright depressed. One night in his first term, having drinks alone at the bar at Michael Schulson’s Sampan on 13th Street, he marched my sister and her boyfriend through a litany of complaints detailing why he hates his job. (“I guess you can’t pick your family,” he said when she told him I was her brother.)
She couldn’t wait till her table was ready, because he was bringing her down. This was pre-pandemic, mind you; just imagine how miserable the poor guy has been now that the job is so much harder.
The truth is, Jim Kenney was barely passable as a caretaker mayor when he inherited from his predecessor a city that was on the incremental upswing. But he has been an abject failure as a crisis manager. That’s not his fault; his leadership persona, such as it is, just ain’t suited to the times. But it’s also true that cities take on the personality of their mayors.
Under Rendell’s relentless cheerleading, Philly became the little city that could, a Rocky-like underdog. Under John Street, a long-overdue correction took place, as far-flung neighborhoods, long starved of services and investment, got, for a time, what was rightly theirs. Under Michael Nutter, technocratic rule came to the fore, and with it came a flock of millennials, contributing a sense of vibrancy on our streets not seen since the heady reform days of Richardson Dilworth.
Is it, then, purely coincidental that, now that we have a mopey, sad sack mayor, Philadelphia is ranked as one of the nation’s least happy cities? According to a study last year by WalletHub, Philly ranked 160th out of 182 cities due to the emotional, physical and employment well-being of those surveyed. Rather than a complainer-in-chief, we need someone to paint a vision for reversing all that.
“Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them,” said Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the first permanently implantable artificial heart. He may as well have been speaking directly to the population of Philly, circa 2022. Instead of that type of vision, we’ve gotten a leader so checked-out that he’s publicly fantasizing about not being mayor at the very moment two of his cops are being treated for gunshot wounds. Rather than some Not in my town Dirty Harry-like messaging, we’ve gotten a morose, monotonous response from the lamest of lame duck mayors who is counting down the days.
Maybe Kenney’s asinine comments represent the last, best chance for him to turn around a legacy that, as of now, promises to be one of failure and ineptitude.
And a good many days it is. Jim Kenney was a lame duck the moment he was reelected, in part because he never ran on a vision for Philadelphia’s future in the first place. (The most innovative campaign promise he ever made was his quickly abandoned pledge to implement Zero-Based Budgeting.)
The mayor has said he won’t heed the call of Domb, Green, and Kenyatta to step down. That’s probably a good thing, because it’s not clear that an interim Mayor Darrell Clarke for the rest of Kenney’s term would make us feel any better about our prospects to actually develop a strategic plan for Philadelphia’s comeback.
But — pardon me if I’m grasping at straws, here — maybe Kenney’s asinine comments represent the last, best chance for him to turn around a legacy that, as of now, promises to be one of failure and ineptitude. After all, unless he does something dramatically different in the next year and a half, he will go down in history as the mayor who quit on his city and couldn’t wait to be out of office in a time of crisis.
Here, then, are some things Jim Kenney can do to rescue his historical reputation and help advance his city’s fortunes at the same time:
Adopt a happiness agenda
Just as only fervent anti-communist Nixon could make peace with China, maybe only a perpetually depressed chief executive like Kenney has the credibility to follow Bhutan’s lead and literally run every public policy decision through a data-driven Gross Domestic Happiness filter that values individual well-being over all else.
Instead of whining about how he stays up at night worrying about us, Kenney could show us how much he cares by announcing an effort to turn around our happiness deficit by launching Philadelphia’s Gross Domestic Happiness Index, complete with a website delineating just how each and every policy decision contributes to the moving of that needle. It would make national news, and, if done right, inject a sense of mission into his government’s bumbling ways.
Post some easy wins
There are many things Mayor Kenney can do tomorrow to move Philadelphia in a more positive direction, if only he’d widen the aperture of his lens. I’ve written about this before. Sure, any mayor would struggle to combat all the challenges facing Philadelphia these last years, but there’s been nothing stopping Kenney from pivoting to putting points on the scoreboard where he can.
He could, for example, announce a Quality of Life agenda, as adopted early this year by Paulette Guajardo, the mayor of Corpus Christi, Texas, who held a press conference on a city street to announce her month-long, intensive “Saving Our Streets” initiative. “Today marks the day when you will begin to see aggressive action in your neighborhood to repair potholes immediately,” the mayor said.
Whether you like it or not, when you’re mayor, you’re in the customer service business. It is within a mayor’s powers to mobilize the machinery of his government to serve its citizens.
Residents had done their part, she explained: “We have heard our constituents loud and clear,” she said, referencing the city’s six-month backlog of requested repairs. Now she was announcing that her Public Works Department would be partnering with two private construction firms and deploying a new water-based technology called “jet patcher” that enables the filling of 150 potholes per hour per crew.
Note to Kenney: Guajardo made herself accountable for real change in a tight time window — change her constituents would soon see on their very streets. She framed herself as responsive to her constituents. And she practiced horizontal leadership by partnering with private sector companies who brought innovative technology to the fore. Rather than bemoan what she couldn’t do in times of crisis, she made herself the face of change in every neighborhood.
That’s just one example. The point is, whether you like it or not, when you’re mayor, you’re in the customer service business. It is within a mayor’s powers to mobilize the machinery of his government to serve its citizens. Pick up their trash, patrol their neighborhoods, clean their streets. Let them see their tax dollars at work. Conversely, when the mechanism for reporting potholes in need of repair to the city — the 311 app — is on the fritz for over a month, as it was earlier this year, it leads to a reasonable conclusion that no one is actually minding the store.
Try something — anything — to combat gun violence
The Kenney administration has been particularly defensive when it comes to its abysmal public safety record, and it’s time for the mayor to give it up. You can’t spin away being on track to match or surpass last year’s record 562 murders, especially when your predecessor turned over to you a 60-year homicide low. What you’re doing ain’t working, and hasn’t been for seven years. So how about showing a little humility and trying some other strategies?
For example, the city could heed the advice of State Senator Art Haywood — who had to sit-in at City Hall to get a hearing from our imperial mayor — and borrow the strategy that has worked to vastly reduce gun violence in Camden, St. Louis and a handful of other cities. The mayor, serving as convener-in-chief, running a multiagency weekly task force that finds the leaders of every relevant city office working together on a coordinated response. That’s the mayor, the DA, the police commissioner, the public defender, and the courts all coming together in a time of crisis to partner on solutions. Here, of course, the mayor and district attorney won’t even talk to each other. Someone has to step up and be the adult in the room — isn’t that who we elect a mayor to be?
No one is expecting any one elected official to don a Superman cape and solve any one of Philadelphia’s most pressing problems. Voters just want someone to be on the case.
Nothing should be off the table. Social scientists at the University of Chicago, for example, are out with a new algorithm that can predict crime in U.S. cities before it happens with 90 percent accuracy. It divides cities into 1,000-square-foot tiles and uses historical data on violent crimes to detect patterns and predict the future. It’s a data-driven advance on traditional “hot spot” policing, in that it takes into account cities’ complex social environments that contribute to crime patterns.
Turns out, the algorithm is the work of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, underwritten by our own Joe Neubauer, former CEO and Chairman of Aramark, and his wife, corporate communications specialist Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer. If Mayor Kenney isn’t the first big city mayor on the phone to them to see how this innovation can be incorporated into his city’s gun violence response today, he doesn’t have the requisite sense of urgency our gun violence epidemic demands.
The point here is that no one is expecting any one elected official to don a Superman cape and solve any one of Philadelphia’s most pressing problems. Voters just want someone to be on the case. New York is still a shooting gallery nearly six months into Eric Adams’ reign, and he’s dropped in the polls, but there’s no question he’s a swaggering, activist mayor who has made public safety job one. He’s named a public safety czar, revived an anti-gun police unit his predecessor had abandoned, deployed more officers to the subway system, and announced a Haywood-like gun prevention task force. Voters might not see results to his efforts, but they see the effort.
That’s what was so damaging about Mayor Kenney’s inadvertent Independence Day truth telling. Though he was attesting to how much he cares, he was demonstrating just how checked-out he’d become. I won’t fight for you is what voters heard. That’s a decidedly un-Philly way to embrace challenge. If the cacophony of criticism and the calls for him to step down don’t wake Jim Kenney up, his legacy will be cemented and, sooner than anticipated, we’ll have to move on to conducting job interviews for his replacement, mindful of heeding the long-ago advice from The Who: We won’t get fooled again.
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MOST POPULAR ON THE CITIZEN RIGHT NOWHeader photo by Albert Lee / City of Philadelphia