The conventional wisdom made sense: When one high profile African-American (Tony Williams) runs against two well-known white candidates (Jim Kenney and Lynne Abraham), the African American candidate wins. How could it not be?
In 2015, conventional racial math had two things going against it: the candidates and the campaigns. Most surprisingly, those that counted on the old racial math missed the meaning of Michael Nutter’s 2007 primary victory.
In 2007, Nutter won out in a crowded field that could have divided the African American vote three ways to deliver the election to one of the two white candidates. Instead, Nutter put together a strong multi-racial coalition and squeaked by.
Nutter ran as an urban reformer wanting to take on entrenched politics. Whatever you think of his accomplishments since, he ran a successful campaign that spoke to the city as a whole. It harkened back to Rendell’s 1991 financial crisis campaign. Nutter won because he ran against the system more than the other candidates, black or white.
The African American electorate in 2007 rejected lackluster campaigning by Chakah Fattah and Dwight Evans, two well-known African American candidates who had strongly delivered for their constituents as legislators.
But neither was viewed as particularly mayoral. Neither worked the growth areas of downtown neighborhoods, University City, or gentrifying sections of South and lower North Philadelphia. They stayed in their lanes, and those lanes led to marginal numbers.
In 2015, Williams could have learned from Nutter’s 2007 coalition, comprised of new urbanites (attracted by amenities in core neighborhoods), good government types (tired of ethics scandals), and the African American middle class, particularly in sections of West and Northwest Philadelphia. But Williams didn’t follow the road map Nutter left him. Instead, despite his one city mantra, his campaign focused on the African American community to the exclusion of a broader coalition.
Nutter voters spent much of the past year looking for a candidate to support. In the end, they decided Jim Kenney represented the closest thing to a third Nutter administration. They made the decision with some trepidation (was it the new Kenney or the old Kenney?) but neither Tony Williams nor Lynne Abraham gave them a reason to vote otherwise.
Kenney ran a nearly flawless campaign, managed by skilled campaign and media professionals. He kept one foot solidly in old Philadelphia, and the other foot in the new urbane Philadelphia of arts, bike lanes, LGBT rights, energy sustainability, government ethics and citizen engagement.
Note to future candidates: The new urbanites are also multi-racial.
A 23-year Councilman at large, this was not Jim Kenney’s first citywide campaign; it was his seventh. He knows every part of the city. The Irish Catholic Councilman from South Philly has learned to add new constituencies to his repertoire, while holding on to the supporters who first brought him to Council.
Williams ran a campaign managed by close-in loyalists without substantial citywide campaign experience. They were immune to contrary voices regarding tactics and strategy, even as it became clear they were moving in the wrong direction.
Williams was never able to make a compelling case for himself as a leader who surrounds himself with great people, whose candidacy matters and who understands what is at stake. I believe Tony Williams is a really good man; but he was not a very good candidate.
Many people who like Williams and were fearful of a Kenney administration were nervous that Williams’ lackluster campaign would transfer to management of the city. Well-funded PACs that helped drive the narrative of the campaign aided both Kenney and Williams. Despite the seemingly endless partisan money behind the Williams candidacy, it was still a battle of pros (Kenney) versus amateurs (Williams).
Comparing the money they spent to the results they achieved, one wonders when the Susquehanna International Group, so successful at building a global company, will start viewing Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics through a broader lens than education. People vote for candidates for multiple reasons, including their belief in their ability to manage the affairs of government.
The only other major candidate, Lynn Abraham, had great name recognition but could never convince enough people that a 1980s-era politician could run a 21st Century city. She ran a campaign with dignity and verve, but it never got traction after the initial launch.
The other three candidates were largely no-shows. Diaz had passion without strategy. Doug Oliver was rehearsing for either a Kenney administration job or a post-Kenney campaign. Milton Street was democracy’s buffoon. I was sorry that the five legitimate candidates had to put up with Street, a man who has a habit of not paying his taxes and committing perjury.
But ultimately this campaign was about Tony Williams’ inability to connect to Philadelphia voters—African American and otherwise—through his record and personality. He ran away from his public charter school background rather than using it as evidence of his willingness to innovate at a time when conventional practices were stuck. Even when he tried to do that, his answers lacked conviction and inspiration.
Finally, Williams never engaged in real debate with his opponents except to complain about Kenney’s old style union connections—particularly his support from Johnnie Doc of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Even that complaint was nullified by Williams’ strong support from the local carpenter’s union, which is far less amenable to change than John Dougherty’s electricians.
Moreover, Williams made a perplexing decision to go after the most popular public official in the city: Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. In the heat of Ferguson and Baltimore, did he miss the fact that President Obama and the Department of Justice had often turned to Commissioner Ramsey for advice?
“Stop and frisk” is a real civil rights issue, but Williams couldn’t make his opposition to it stick as a good reason for electing him over Kenney. And going after Ramsey seemed more desperate than principled. Ramsey is a man of integrity who seems to try his best to balance public safety and civil rights. He has had no problem going after corrupt cops in his own department. Those of us who remember the work that Williams—along with Dwight Evans—did to bring better policing to Philadelphia in the 1990s were astonished at this wild swing at the plate.
What Williams failed to grasp is that taking African American voters for granted is a losing strategy, particularly in a city where three of the past four mayors have been African American, and the present heads of city council, the police department and the public schools are all African American. The African American community has nothing to prove in any singular election, and if a candidate does not measure up, they will not blindly support that candidate.
As a long line of African American politicians began to desert Williams for Kenney, the potential for a landslide was hatched. Some African American leaders saw that their own political leverage would improve with a Kenney administration. City Council President Darrell Clarke saw a stable governing coalition with insured power sharing. Other African American leaders were more aligned on the issues with Kenney, particularly on schools and labor union loyalties.
The admonition by several African American leaders that not voting for Williams was racial betrayal seemed a remnant of a past era of city politics. It rang hollow even as several ministers tried to rally the troops on the Sunday before the election. Rev. Bill Moore from North Philadelphia claimed it was a civil rights issue to support Williams. But why is that? It was never clear.
The old racial math, based on a white-black calculation, is no longer relevant. The city’s demography is more complex today than a few decades ago. African Americans currently make up about 42 percent of the city, and non-Hispanic whites about 36 percent. The numbers among Democratic Party registrants is even more heavily weighted in favor of African Americans.
What has changed is not their relative numbers, but the fact that about 20 percent of the city is now either Hispanic or Asian. That changes the calculation, as does an increasing number of mixed raced people who do not identify with the former identity logic. As a society, we are becoming a more mestizo culture, slowly but surely; this will eventually change everything.
Kenney’s appeal to immigrants may have paid off even in some black communities, where an increasingly large number of Caribbean and African immigrants live.
In addition to that, the growing parts of downtown and University City are being bolstered by large numbers of young people (22-34 years old) whose numbers are slightly higher for whites (about 40 percent) than the city’s population at large. As a 2014 Pew study noted, this has stabilized the city’s white population, which had been in decline for most of the past half century.
How this new demography played out in the election will take more careful analysis. But whatever the Tuesday numbers say, the future is clear. Effective campaigns will require a broader coalition than the one Williams put together. The Nutter campaign of 2007 is the current model for success. And the old racial math cannot transcend the citywide appeal of the right candidate.