Last month, at the “Mayoral MilenniaLab” we hosted along with Committee of 70, Young Involved Philadelphia and the Pattison Leader Group, I said something that unintentionally drew some knowing guffaws from the mayoral candidates in attendance. “I’ve been frustrated by the questions being put to the candidates this election season,” I said, prompting Jim Kenney to practically snort: “You’ve been frustrated!”
Since then, I’ve spoken to many of the candidates, and the one sentiment all seem to share is this sense that, for one reason or another, this campaign never really broke through the pop culture ambient noise that so often distorts our public narrative. Just this week, Mustafa Rashad, campaign chair for Doug Oliver, penned a piece for Al Dia critiquing the media coverage of the race. Now, every campaign in political history has criticized the media covering it—even Obama in ’08, and that was as close to a lovefest as ever had been. It’s part of the job description. So some of the candidate frustration is to be expected.
But I think there’s something else going on, because I’ve felt it, too. I’ve attended a couple of forums, watched a couple of the debates. Each candidate has done his or her homework. Yet, more often than not, they’re asked to respond to inanities—did Nelson Diaz steal Tony Williams’ community bank idea?—or they’re queried about their political strategy, ie, the “horserace,” or they’re forced to respond to sweeping policy questions in 45 seconds. I think that’s what Kenney and the others were sighing about: You try solving poverty in 45 seconds.
“A leader has to lead,” says Abraham, “and I am, and always will be, a strong leader who makes the ultimate tough decisions after being informed of all the issues and facts.”
My sense is that, as happened eight years ago, we’ve failed to ask the questions that are the best predictor of mayoral job performance. We haven’t treated this campaign as a city-wide job interview in which we’re the employer.
In retrospect, that’s where we came up short back in 2007, the last time we had a contested mayoral election. Only a couple of months before the Democratic primary, you’ll remember, it had been a foregone conclusion: Chaka Fattah was going to be the next mayor of Philadelphia. At least, that’s what all the self-appointed smart people said.
“Voting against DROP lost me the support of all three municipal unions, including my father,” says Kenney. “And I nearly lost my seat that year, coming in fifth place in the Council at-large race.”
But then Michael Nutter, at one point running a distant fifth in the polls, showed an acumen for policy in the debates. And when he ran a commercial starring his daughter that pulled at the electorate’s heartstrings, Nutter surged; running as a reformer and promising a “New Day,” he won.
For those of us who supported him but ended up vaguely disappointed by Nutter, we now wish we’d asked some important questions. Foreshadowing the presidential election that would take place the following year, we covered Nutter’s campaign more like a social movement phenomenon. He spoke stirringly of turning the page on how the city had been operating; we just forgot to inspect his operational chops.
“I stood up to the trial lawyers who supported me in my campaign and voted against them on Tort Reform,” says Williams.
Had we covered that campaign with an eye toward predicting job performance, there would have been in-depth pieces and conversation about Nutter’s relationship with his brethren on City Council, none of whom supported him. Was that a harbinger of the gridlock that was to come? Did Nutter have the political skills to get things done? It’s a question that wasn’t asked enough in 2007, and should have been. But many of us, yours truly included, were more taken by the fact that he had a daughter in public school, knew the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” and was committed to ethics reform. We didn’t stop to think: We’re hiring a Chief Executive Officer. So what’s this legislator ever run?
It kinda feels like déjà vu all over again. So I reached out to Kenney, Williams and Abraham and asked the questions I don’t think have been asked frequently enough. Let’s compare and contrast their responses. (All questions and responses came via email).
The Citizen: Can you provide one specific example where you’ve used political skill to solve a problem, i.e. where you’ve brought warring factions together or somehow managed to bridge a divide in service of the common good?
Kenney: Both the Police Commissioner and Mayor Nutter were initially opposed to marijuana decriminalization, but through compromise, we were able to enact a law that drastically reduced the number of small amount of marijuana possession arrests and, in turn, prevented many young people from being saddled with a criminal record, which cuts off employment and educational opportunities.
Williams: The cigarette tax that finally created a source of funding for the Philly schools. I brought a bipartisan vote together to get it done over two years. It’s something Governor Rendell couldn’t get done.
Abraham: I fought a very long and contentious battle to change the Constitution of Pennsylvania so very young children witnesses of tender years would no longer have to testify ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with someone they had, for example, seen murder a parent…Children would stop testifying while the accused was glaring at them…After many years, we passed an amendment so that now the trial judge makes a determination after a hearing if the child witness has to testify face to face or can testify via closed circuit TV with counsel present, but the accused watching from a remote location.
The Takeaway: In Kenney’s case, decriminalizing marijuana did exhibit compromise, as he suggests, but it also dovetailed with the arc of public opinion; even Nutter, who had opposed it, no doubt saw which way the pungent winds were blowing on the issue. That said, someone had to be first, and it was Kenney who demonstrated a keen sense of the electorate’s mood.
As for Williams, yes: He played a pivotal role in passing that bipartisan tax, and it dovetails with his reputation as an able legislator.
Finally, interesting, isn’t it, that Abraham responds to a question about political skill by referencing a “long and contentious battle?” That’s because Abraham believes the city needs a fighter. “I’m going to be a Richardson Dilworth-type mayor,” she once told me. Dilworth, the legendary reformer of the late ‘50s who toppled the longstanding Republican machine, was combative, and Abraham has long admired, and exhibited, that pugnaciousness. (“Yes, I am an emotional man, but I am a fighter,” Dilworth once said. “Where would the cities of this country be if it were not for men like me who fought for them?”)
The Citizen: What have you run, i.e. managed, in terms of staffing and budget, and what is your management philosophy?
Kenney: As a City Councilman, I was responsible for my staff and budget. I also serve on the Independence Blue Cross Board and as a business development director at Vitetta [an architecture and engineering firm]. I believe every elected official is only as good as his people, so I put a focus on hiring smart, efficient folks from all parts of the city and the country.
Williams: As the regional manager for PepsiCo, I managed about a 75 member staff and oversaw a $3 million budget. I would describe my management style as relatively straight forward. Hire smart people, establish standards and goals, give direction, and allow them to grow in their positions. I also have a strong belief in mentoring and giving people an opportunity to shine. I’m proud of the fact that people I’ve hired have gone on to do great things, like Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, State Rep. Jordan Harris and Judge Timika Lane. Currently, about a third of my senate staff is made up of reentering citizens and the average age of my campaign staff is 27.
Abraham: I ran the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority with, at first, 530 people, overseeing the development of multi-million dollar projects, including Franklin Town, The University City Science Center, Market Street East, and the beginnings of the Airport expansion. At the District Attorney’s office, I managed a staff of 600 and a budget of around $35 million per year. My management style is a highly collaborative affair, with my hiring and listening to the very best and brightest senior staff…I always allow managers to have significant autonomy, encourage team building, solicit ideas and new approaches from anyone on staff and keep the entire office in the loop as much as possible. Having said this, a leader has to lead and I am, and always will be, a strong leader who makes the ultimate tough decisions after being informed of all the issues and facts.
The Takeaway: All good, competent answers, right? Still, there’s a part of me that wants more. There are many theories of management bouncing around inside the walls of places like Wharton or, for that matter, the Fels Institute of Government or Drexel’s Center for Public Policy, and I wish our next mayor would give some thought as to how he or she can managerially turn around a moribund culture. How do you infuse a slow-moving bureaucracy with a culture of innovation and experimentation? One member of the Nutter administration recently lamented that “working in city government has killed my grit.”
Well, it’s the mayor’s job to reignite that worker’s idealism. That’s what Arlen Specter did when he was the city’s District Attorney. “It was us against the world,” Ed Rendell once told me when reflecting on his time working for Specter. “He had a way of making you feel like you were on a mission.”
Whether it’s the Japanese business philosophy Kaizen (the practice of continual improvement), or legendary CEO Jack Welch’s Six Sigma precepts, great organizational turnaround doesn’t just happen. There’s always a strategy and a culture shift. For all the policy questions we’re putting to the candidates, being mayor is still essentially a managerial position and I wish we’d all devoted more time to fleshing out what that means.
The Citizen: Please provide one example of you committing an act of political courage—saying no to a contributor, standing up to an interest group, etc.
Kenney: I was the only City Council member to vote against DROP in 2011. I thought it was unfair that elected officials were able to walk away with hundreds of thousands in pension benefits while so many of our working families were still suffering from the Great Recession. That vote lost me the support of all three municipal unions, including my father—and I nearly lost my seat that year, coming in fifth place in the Council at-large race.
Williams: I stood up to the trial lawyers who supported me in my campaign and voted against them on Tort Reform.
Abraham: My decision to launch the only thorough and exhaustive Grand Jury investigation by a prosecutor in the entire United States into widespread clergy sexual abuse of children and adolescents by members of the Roman Catholic Clergy within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. We subpoenaed the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia to testify before the Grand Jury, along with many other powerful members of the Catholic hierarchy. In addition to the five year investigation, we published the names and photographs of those who were engaged in these crimes…The Grand Jury reports set forth the reasons these hideous practices had been permitted to continue for decades, including the massive and immoral coverup engaged in by many of the most powerful people in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy: at least two Cardinals, countless Bishops, and others. I decided to go ahead with this investigation in spite of virtually every ‘powerful’ person warning, if not threatening, me of the ‘consequences’ for going through with this investigation.
The Takeaway: First off, kudos to all three, especially Abraham—who took on an issue after the Statute of Limitations had run out because she saw it as the right thing to do.
I’d forgotten about Kenney’s courageous stand against DROP, which makes me feel better about him. He’s clearly smart and committed to the city. And he arguably has the most impressive campaign staff going, which says something about him: Campaign manager Jane Slusser is a star, and media consultant Ken Snyder is a longtime pro. But the one question that has gnawed about Kenney’s 23-year career on Council is his seeming aversion to risk. That he couldn’t bring himself to defy Darrell Clarke by merely introducing a motion to hold a hearing on the PGW sale; that, for years, he wouldn’t run for mayor because he needed the security of his Council salary (and only ran this time once there was an opening and Johnny Doc was solidly behind him), and that it was his bill guaranteeing pension bonuses irrespective of the unfunded state of the pension system…it all added up to a question, essentially, about character: Would Jim Kenney take unpopular stands? His position on DROP was certainly that.
Finally, Williams has shown a willingness to take risks. As he points out, there’s his defiance of the trial lawyer lobby. And, wherever you come down on charters, give the guy credit for taking a stand—and being early to it. Williams, informed by his time at the great Westtown School near West Chester, saw the polls showing that two-thirds of African-American parents favored the option of charter schools. Not because they were ideologically driven to charters, but rather because they knew how bad their neighborhood schools were and were willing to try something different. He was responding to demand—something one wishes more politicians would do. That said, he hasn’t made the case during this campaign for charters, allowing himself to be too easily-defined. And his eleventh-hour torpedoing of Commissioner Ramsey was a head-scratcher, and smacked of desperation.
So when you vote to essentially hire one of these candidates, here’s hoping you consider the key predictors of future performance: Who has the managerial chops to change the government’s culture, and who has the guts to stand for what he or she believes? Because we’re not just electing someone with good ideas. We should be electing someone who has the skill to take those ideas and spread them through a bureaucracy, activating change.