On Tuesday, May 21, Democratic voters will select a candidate for mayor. Due to the dominance of the local Democratic Party, whoever wins the party’s primary is almost guaranteed to become the next mayor.
The Philadelphia Tribune endorses Jim Kenney for re-election.
While we appreciate and agree with many of the points raised by Democratic challengers state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, we believe that Kenney deserves another four-year term, although we do have some serious concerns that we outline in this editorial endorsement. Despite our concerns we endorse Kenney for re-election for the following reasons:
Education: Jim Kenney has helped return the School District of Philadelphia to local control. He worked with Gov. Tom Wolf to end the School Reform Commission and return to a local school board, appointed by the mayor. Putting the mayor alone in control of public schools should increase accountability. The ultimate test of whether this change is effective is whether it increases school quality and student performance. While control is important the real test is whether our public schools are preparing students for the workforce and college.
In addition to helping to return the school district to local control, Kenney has also established the community schools model in Philadelphia, and expanded the funding for pre-K through his sugary beverage tax, more commonly known as the soda tax. About 4,000 students have enrolled in universal pre-K under the Kenney administration.
The Tribune opposes the soda tax. We urge the mayor to find alternative funding for the worthy goals of increasing pre-K funding and enrollment as well as the other goal of rebuilding recreation centers and libraries. The mayor, council and local state legislators must continue to aggressively lobby Harrisburg for additional state funding for the school district.
Crime and criminal justice reform: The mayor and District Attorney Larry Krasner have taken a different approach to incarceration. Ten years ago nearly 10,000 people were held in Philadelphia jails, most of them on a pretrial basis — creating one of the highest per capita jail populations in the country. Last year, the average daily incarcerated population was little more than 5,000. As the jail population has fallen, the crime rate has continued a gradual, decade-long decline, despite being marred since 2014 by an increase in homicides.
However, the dramatic change in approach toward criminal justice reform could have some unintended consequences, as pointed out by Butkovitz in a recent televised debate.
Butkovitz said Krasner’s criminal justice reform sends a message to violent criminals that they can get away with limited repercussions. Butkovitz is partly right. The mayor and the DA should be concerned that their attempt to address past abuses and over-incarceration does not lead to the perception or reality of increased tolerance for criminal behavior, especially violent criminal behavior. Victims of violent crime cannot be overlooked or slighted in the pursuit of criminal justice reform. There must be a balanced approach regarding criminal justice reform and fighting crime.
On the issue of stop and frisk, Kenney has broken his promise to end the practice, although there has been an overall reduction in stops. The mayor and Police Commissioner Richard Ross should also be given credit for reducing the number of police-involved shootings.
On the issue of violent crime, homicides have reached the highest number since 2012. However, other violent crimes in the city have decreased by 20 percent during the Kenney administration. The mayor, the police department and the district attorney must work together to dramatically reduce the number of homicides.
Jobs and economic growth: Philadelphia has some thriving neighborhoods and construction is booming, according to this year’s Pew “State of the City” report.
But the report shows the contrasts between the city’s neighborhoods to be as dramatic as ever.
“On a citywide basis, Philadelphia’s population has been rising steadily for more than a decade, a strong sign of civic well-being. But the growth has been concentrated in the center of the city and in pockets of the Northeast where immigrants have settled. In large swaths of North, Northwest and West Philadelphia, the population has been declining or has stayed about the same,” the report said.
“Home sale prices have risen 63 percent since 2010, creating wealth in some parts of the city but not in others. Center City has seen the most substantial increases. In much of the Northeast, Northwest and Southwest, however, the gains have been far more modest.”
The mayor should also be credited for keeping his campaign promise of raising the minimum wage for city contractors and employees to $15 an hour.
Poverty: In a meeting with the Tribune’s editorial board, Kenney said you can’t expect him to change overnight the city’s poverty problem that has persisted for decades. He is right but should expect progress. In a televised debate, Kenney said he expects to reduce the poverty rate by 10 percent by the end of his second term.
We plan to hold the mayor accountable to that promise. Now that the mayor can be held directly accountable for schools, we expect Kenney to improve the quality of education in public schools so that Philadelphia schoolchildren are ready for opportunities that are available to them in the local job market. The mayor should also target adult literacy and focus on increasing the number of Philadelphians with post-secondary education and in-demand certification.
If area businesses are having a problem filling jobs with local talent, this is a failure of the school system for which the mayor is now ultimately responsible.
Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room of Philadelphia politics — the lack of inclusion in the buildings and trade union and the influence in local and even some statewide elections of John “Johnny doc” Dougherty, who leads Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Dougherty has been one of Kenney’s most formidable political backers, a fact that his challenger has frequently pointed out. But the problem is that Dougherty has also been a backer in the past of Butkovitz and Williams and they did not express any significant public opposition to him prior to this election. Despite being indicted on federal corruption charges earlier this year, Dougherty continues to financially back several Democratic candidates in the primary on Tuesday.
Until our local politicians stop being so dependent on money from one powerful and vindictive union boss there will be few profiles in courage in Philadelphia politics. Other more enlightened and inclusive interests need to become more involved in local politics to counter the influence of Dougherty. The local Republican Party also needs to become competitive again. One-party rule often leads to complacency and corruption.
City Council, business leaders, community leaders and others need to hold the mayor accountable for pushing for greater inclusion in the building trades and the awarding of city contracts. Philadelphia will have a much brighter future when it sheds the politics of the past, focus on reducing poverty and crime and increasing inclusion.