So we had an election May 19 that all but anointed Jim Kenney as our next mayor. If you’re anything like me, you woke up the next day saying to yourself…”Was that it?” In the fifth largest city in America, that was the conversation we had about who would likely lead us for the next eight years? Political consultant Neil Oxman got all Seinfeldian when he told The Daily News, “It was an election about nothing.”
When it comes to our level of public discourse, this campaign was not a shining moment. And the stakes are high. For we now have an anointed mayor whose 23-year record in public life was barely explored, and whose ideas weren’t challenged.
Citizen columnist Jeremy Nowak last week astutely set forth the ways Republican Melissa Murray Bailey could make her candidacy relevant. But even if she takes his advice, that might not be enough. After all, when Sam Katz was a credible Republican choice in 1999 and 2003, Republicans were outnumbered by Democrats by a mere 4 to 1, a ratio that has roughly doubled in the intervening years.
What we need is an independent candidate for mayor. Cue Bill Green, who is actively considering running. This is not an endorsement of Green. It is an acknowledgment that we still need a robust debate and something more than a typical political season, where the math of turnout inevitably leads to a paucity of ideas. We need something that can jumpstart real change—beyond just this election. Because, for all his progressivism on issues ranging from marijuana to LBGT to stop and frisk, Jim Kenney is actually sounding like someone who, on the big issues, is looking backwards, when what we need are new ideas to challenge long-held assumptions.
This is not an endorsement of Bill Green, who is actively considering an independent run. It is an acknowledgment that we still need a robust debate. For all his progressivism on issues ranging from marijuana to LBGT to stop and frisk, Kenney is actually sounding like someone who, on the big issues, is looking backwards.
My unease with Kenney heightened when I watched his recent half-hour interview on Channel 6’s Inside Story. (Full disclosure: I’m a frequent panelist on the show). Ominously, it revealed a mindset that pined for the past as opposed to one eager to innovate into the future. To wit:
• In terms of economic growth, there was a passing reference to “cultivating the creative economy and the IT folks,” but twice he made clear his priorities: “I still think the primary focus for me right now are blue collar industrial jobs that will feed families and raise kids,” he said. Sounds good, but where in America, exactly, are cities being turned around thanks to port-based jobs? “When I was growing up in South Philly, a lot of men had who didn’t have a college or even high school graduation held those jobs,” he said.
Problem is, back then, we weren’t competing globally—not to mention with our neighboring states. It’s not that we shouldn’t be investing in industrial manufacturing jobs…it’s that, in a knowledge-based economy, if you make that your economic development “focus,” you’re in the wrong century. There aren’t enough of those jobs left to grow the economy at the rate we need.
• When asked if he’d able to “stand up” to his organized labor contributors, Kenney challenged the premise. “I don’t think the word ‘stand up’ is relevant,” he said. “I think cooperation and discussion makes more sense…The concept of standing up and fighting back and beating down doesn’t work in a Democracy…You need to cooperate and negotiate for contracts that are fair to the public and for the workers.”
Of course, that begs the question: Will Kenney have the courage to really negotiate with his own political benefactors? The best way to get to a fair contract, after all, is to be tough in negotiations. You can do that and be fair, as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed proved in 2010, when, shortly after being elected with labor support, he marched city workers into his office and walked them through pie charts that showed the city’s future in peril if something wasn’t done about the runaway cost of municipal benefits. He convinced them to exchange some short-term pain for long-term gain…and just before running for reelection, he was able to make good on his promise and give city workers a raise.
Those who underwrote Kenney’s campaign were no doubt relieved to hear him subtly signal that he wouldn’t be adopting a Reed-like stance with them. Instead, he launched into a moving defense of the union movement historically—all good stuff, but diversionary. The advent of the 40 hour work week and child labor laws has nothing to do with how we figure out a fair fix to our unfunded pension liability, which is the second worst in the country. (Currently, our pension obligations eat up 17 percent of city spending.)
• When Kenney, who was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, says that Commissioner Ramsey is “welcome to stay if he wants to stay” but that he wouldn’t look outside the department for Ramsey’s replacement, we’re once again revisiting our more parochial days. Of our last four commissioners, two were outside change agents—John Timoney and Ramsey—and two were don’t-rock-the-boat products of police culture: Richard Neal and Sylvester Johnson. The evidence in favor of fresh eyes from beyond our borders would seem to be in.
And that’s the real question for all of us, isn’t it? Will Jim Kenney represent fresh thinking? There are some red flags in the record, like his unwillingness to hold a public hearing on the $1.8 billion idea of selling PGW. Or his 2007 bill that pandered to city workers by removing the fiscally responsible rule requiring the pension fund to be funded at 76 percent in order to warrant worker bonuses. (We’re currently funded at 48 percent, but thanks to Kenney’s legislation, that didn’t stop $60 million in bonuses going out this year). And what of all those tax increases he’s voted for, in what is already the highest-taxed big city in America? Does he have a vision for growing the tax base?
To be fair, Kenney’s position papers do detail some forward-thinking policies. He’s in favor of zero-based budgeting, for example, which dictates that each city department start at zero and build its budget solely in line with its core mission. When done right, as it was in Montgomery County, zero-based budgeting exposes backroom political claims masquerading as necessary government spending. Will Jim Kenney, onetime Vince Fumo acolyte and the choice of the establishment, have the guts to do that?
I honestly don’t know—and neither will the voters, unless we have a real debate this summer and fall. If Green runs, he’s not likely to win. He’d need to raise about $1.5 million himself and have support from an independent expenditure group to the tune of about another $3 million. Otherwise, Kenney’s media guy, Ken Snyder—a smart, political pit bull—will decimate Green with a negative ad campaign right from the start. Green, after all, has made his share of enemies during his time on Council and as Chair of the School Reform Commission.
But, in terms of policy, Green’s ideas could help us wade through the stakes of this election. It could crystallize for us if this is a status quo or change moment in our story. I suspect that, when your population grows by 8,000 over a decade but 60,000 of your fellow citizens are falling into poverty each year, status quo ought to be off the table—but that’s precisely what we ought to be inspecting.
If Green runs and loses, it could help Jim Kenney be a better mayor. (In much the same way that a credible Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton will make her a better general election candidate). Green has, after all, not only taken controversial positions on issues like schools, tax reform and fixing our pension system, he’s written laborious white papers on these subjects. Five years ago, he was pushing selling off not only PGW, but also the water department, city-owned parking garages, and getting permission from the federal government to get us out of the airport business. Doing all that could net the city $4 billion; divesting of all but the airport could garner about $2.5 billion. On schools, Green is uniquely positioned to argue on behalf of parents that having some 118,000 children in failing schools (public or charter) is unacceptable—and warrants more experimentation, not less.
Here’s an audacious proposal—let’s see if it tempts Green. Let’s replicate the Lincoln-Douglas debates right here, where the notion of active citizenship was born. Those seven debates in 1858 for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois between challenger Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas were unlike anything we go through today. There was no inane moderator. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate had 90 minutes, and then the first one got a 30-minute rebuttal.
Okay, we can play with the time allotment, since we’d have to foot the bill for Adderall to be given out at the door, and maybe seven is a few too many. But let’s do something like this—real debates, no talking points or political spin. The Citizen and our partners will foot the bill and we’d hold them in different neighborhoods of the city. Kenney, Green and Murray Bailey, all on the same stage. If any one demurs, we’ll put an empty chair in his or her place.
It would be a civics lesson in real time. And it would be an exercise worthy of our history. All we need are candidates willing to put themselves out there.