Shooting from the lip is a time-honored Philly tradition, and nowhere is the art form in more frequent practice than on the airwaves of sports talker WIP, where the phones lines light up on a daily basis with tirades of equal parts passion and misinformation. Listening to the daily drama—and it is a drama, the American male soap opera—you have to wonder: Does anyone take a breath around here? It’s thrilling and terrifying all at once…Shouting trumps reasoned discourse and name-calling renders civility a quaint trait of the past. (A time-honored tradition of Angelo Cataldi’s Morning Show is to bestow a “Weasel of the Week” award, usually upon some twentysomething athlete who is not trying to embarrass himself on the field of play.)
Now, based on the last week or so of headlines, I’m wondering if the same will be said of our politics in the new Kenney era.
If you haven’t caught the headlines, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney made a head-scratcher of a choice in a city with crumbling infrastructure, struggling schools and unfunded pensions when he decided to pick his first public fight—with the Philadelphia Eagles. The saga provides insight into the many faces of Kenney and raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of mayor he’ll be.
First, the background. On December 8, the Philadelphia Business Journal broke the news that Kenney is opposed to Temple University building a football stadium on its campus. “If the Eagles were living up to their commitment to Philadelphia and our public university, just as the Steelers live up to their commitment to Pittsburgh by renting their stadium for free to Pitt’s football team, there wouldn’t be a need for a stadium at Temple University,” Kenney told the Business Journal. And then he went all Jimmy from South Philly: “There’d also be a winning team down at Lincoln Financial Field for a refreshing change.”
Whoa. Temple promptly put its stadium plans on hold. And—even though Kenney’s facts were wrong, which we’ll get to—the Mayor-elect doubled down on his position last week.
“The Eagles are frustrating to me,” he said. “They are not…as community-committed as the Phillies, Flyers, and Sixers are.” Temple pays about $1 million in rent to the Eagles, who reportedly want $12 million up-front and $2 million per year in rent for a new 30-year lease. “There is nothing I can do to force them to do the right thing,” Kenney said. “They have a very solid and stubborn attitude about the relationship between Temple and the Eagles.”
Needless to say, the Eagles felt blindsided. Christina Weiss-Lurie penned an op-ed earlier this week, detailing all the great work the Eagles Youth Partnership does for the city of Philadelphia.
Okay, now let’s do some unpeeling:
Kenney misstated the issue. There is a legitimate debate to be had over whether Temple should build an on-campus stadium. David Murphy of the Daily News has done the best reporting on this, showing pretty conclusive proof that anytime big-time college football programs (or those that aspire to the big-time) finance and erect on-campus stadiums, it’s the students who end up paying for it.
Kenney made a head-scratcher of a choice in a city with crumbling infrastructure, struggling schools and unfunded pensions when he decided to pick his first public fight—with the Eagles. The saga provides insight into the many faces of Kenney and raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of mayor he’ll be.
But Kenney’s not making that case. No, Kenney links Temple’s plans to the state of the school’s lease with the Eagles in a way that Temple does not. Temple doesn’t want to play at the Linc anymore; President Neil Theobald has made it clear that, as he says, athletics are the front porch of a University, and the way to attract students is to become a sports powerhouse. It’s a dubious proposition, but the theory is you do that by having on-campus facilities to help recruit All-American athletes, as opposed to playing the majority of your games before sparse crowds in a gigantic crosstown stadium.
Part of me wishes that Temple actually does want to play at the Linc, and that Kenney’s comments were really Machiavellian—designed to aid Temple by putting pressure on the Eagles. That would be taking a page from his long-ago mentor, Vince Fumo, who was the master of such misdirection. (Fumo was the primary reason the Phillies don’t play in a Center City ballpark today). But the WIP caller-like shot about the Eagles’ losing record and the singling out of the Eagles as somehow lacking in community commitment when compared to the other sports teams speak to the truth of the matter: Jimmy from South Philly is an emotional guy, he’s pissed off at all this losing—like that fourth-and-1 play call into the line against the Cardinals!—and he just doesn’t like Chip Kelly’s team.
Kenney Got The Facts Wrong. Turns out, Pitt does pay rent to the Steelers. More egregious was Kenney’s condemnation of the Eagles as somehow lacking in commitment to the community. Lurie’s op-ed ably maps out the great work done by the Eagles Youth Partnership, but she barely touches on all the initiatives performed by Eagles’ players like our own Connor Barwin, nor does she mention that the Eagles are All-World among sports teams in terms of environmental sustainability. They’re so committed, they’ve been known to load up the team plane with their trash after away games in order to make sure their refuse is properly disposed of.
But the unfavorable comparison to the other sports teams in town is where Kenney really goes astray. I’m a longtime, and long suffering, Sixers fan, and in particular I’m an admirer of Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil. But Kenney must not know that the Sixers, lured by ridiculous incentives from Trenton, are moving to Camden—taking some 250 jobs and the accompanying wage taxes and multiplier effect economic impacts with them across the river. I’m not mad at them—hey, I just want to win already, so if this gets us there, I’ll help load up the buses—but it’s hardly an example of “community commitment.”
Can you shoot from the lip and govern? Most observers believe that City Council President Darrell Clarke, whose Fifth Councilmanic District includes Temple, will ultimately be supportive of the university’s desire to build a stadium. And one of Kenney’s core constituencies—the building trades—stands to reap the benefits of a North Philly stadium. The only constituency his Temple stance seems to play to are the progressives like those in 15 Now Temple, the group that organized a protest on campus to argue that the school should raise its employee wages instead of building a stadium.
Did he think about the politics of his position before speaking? Kenney exhibited great skill in putting together a fragile coalition of diverse interests in order to get elected. But taking a position that is likely counter to some of his allies interests before even being sworn in might be a sign that keeping a coalition together is significantly harder than forming it.
As the imbroglio with the Eagles flared, one insider noted of our Mayor-elect, “he’s kenneying all over this.” That’s the danger, that “Kenneying” becomes a verb, conjuring images of a stampeding bull amid our political china.
Talking tough. Over at Philly Mag, Patrick Kerkstra has penned a smart piece positing Kenney as the “anti-Nutter.” But there is at least one way in which the two men are strikingly alike.
Both are historically risk-averse politicians with a tendency to talk tough—when it doesn’t cost anything. So Nutter scores points for calling Donald Trump an asshole and for telling young African-American kids to pull their pants up, when the truly gunslinging act would have been to spend some political capital early in his tenure to take on poverty or pensions.
Similarly, it’s pretty easy for Kenney to play to the 700 level by lambasting our underachieving pro football team. The real measure of Kenney’s toughness will come when we find out if he’ll be able to say “no” to his supporters when negotiating with the city unions. (Don’t forget that it was Kenney’s 2007 bill that pandered to city workers by removing the fiscally responsible rule requiring the pension to be funded at 76 percent in order to warrant worker bonuses; we’re currently funded at 48 percent, but thanks to Kenney, that didn’t stop $60 million in bonuses from going out earlier this year.)
Someone help Jimmy be Jimmy. Over the last week, as the imbroglio with the Eagles flared, one insider noted of our Mayor-elect, “he’s Kenneying all over this.”
That’s the danger, that “Kenneying” becomes a verb, conjuring images of a stampeding bull amid our political china. Those who have long known Jim Kenney marvel at how the campaign kept his intemperate inclinations from bubbling to the surface.
Whether he’s calling Chris Christie a “fat assed…creep” on Twitter or dressing up as an elf, Jim Kenney is all heart. That’s mostly a good thing. Last month, I was among those asked to read to schoolchildren at the Clara Barton Elementary School in Feltonville to help kick off the “Right Books” campaign, an effort to raise $3.5 million to stock classroom libraries. Before going to our respective classrooms, there was a press conference featuring Kenney, Superintendent William Hite and Donna Frisby-Greenwood, CEO of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the District’s nonprofit philanthropic arm. Young students sat cross-legged on the floor to the right of the podium. As Frisby-Greenwood spoke and the cameras rolled, Kenney stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Hite behind her; soon, he started leaning back behind Hite to make eye contact with the kids on the floor. He’d scrunch up his nose or comically smack his lips, eliciting giggles from the kids, before catching himself and looking forward, straight-faced. Moments later, he’d lean back and be at it again, playing to and playing with the only constituency in the room without a vote…that also happened to be the only constituency in the room that really matters. It was charmingly boyish, affectionate and, most important, real.
“I saw you making faces at the kids, that was pretty cool,” I said afterward.
“Oh, I had young ones once,” he said, smiling. “You gotta play around with them.”
After eight years of a competent but bloodless technocrat in City Hall, it will be great to have a living, breathing, passionate personality leading the city. Isn’t it possible to be outspoken, provocative and authentic while still being smart and high-minded? Kenney didn’t offer proof of that hypothesis these last ten days. But, despite the messiness, I’m hoping he figures it out. So don’t count me as among those who want to see Kenney muzzled. I just want to see him prepared.
Header Photo: Flickr/Ron Reiring