Our interview with Mayor-elect Jim Kenney - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 7, 2015 12:59 pm

Our interview with Mayor-elect Jim Kenney

A month from taking over Philadelphia City Hall, the South Philly native and longtime City Councilman spoke frankly and freely about his view of progressive leadership at Technical.ly's Rise Conference on civic innovation.

City of Philadelphia Mayor-elect Jim Kenney (right) speaks with Technical.ly Editorial Director Christopher Wink.

(Photo by Brian James Kirk)

In a month, the colorful and at-times fiery longtime City Councilman Jim Kenney will become the 99th Mayor of the City of Philadelphia after building a broad coalition in a cluttered field of candidates.

Along the way, with the help of a 14-point questionnaire and a lively mayoral primary forum, we learned more about his interest in the technology, entrepreneurship and innovation communities of Philadelphia. Before he takes office in January, we wanted to widen the scope. That’s why we welcomed him to keynote our Rise conference on civic innovation last Thursday.

On a stage at the National Museum of American Jewish History in front of an audience of 150 civil servants and economic development leaders from across the mid-Atlantic, we sat down for a fast-moving conversation about his economic development policy views coming into his tenure.

So what did we learn about Jim Kenney?

  • He can be fun. When comfortable, as he appeared to be on stage, he can be silly and engaging, making weed jokes to a wonky audience of policymakers.
  • He takes more traditionally liberal stances on social issues. Current Mayor Michael Nutter is known as a bit more of a centrist, defending stop and frisk for one and prioritizing private-sector job creation in stump speeches. By contrast, Kenney speaks most passionately about progressive social causes, like immigration, poverty and even the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • He’s still learning about what the preceding administration has done. There was ample conversation after his keynote among a host of city IT staffers in the audience about Kenney discussing the challenge of attracting private-sector tech talent. Several attending the conference had, in fact, been lured to City Hall by the Nutter administration under its CIO Adel Ebeid, including Mjumbe Poe and Aaron Ogle. Kenney also seemed to describe gateway offices, a chief strategy from current Commerce Director Alan Greenberger for encouraging suburban tech firms to open small satellite offices in Center City to attract talent.
  • He’s far more comfortable talking ports than software. In talking about economic development, he’s able to light up about shipping containers but is far more reserved about web and related businesses.

There’s an old binary that’s sometimes used to describe how we elect mayors in post-industrial Philadelphia. It goes that we alternate mayoral focus between the Center City core and the struggling neighborhoods. That some mayors are all about attracting business and new residents and others are about reducing blight and tackling quality of life issues. Pols hate the binary, since mayors must of course represent the entire city, but it’s useful shorthand: we have Center City mayors and neighborhood mayors.

Ed Rendell was the prototypical Center City mayor. John Street was a neighborhoods guy. Nutter was a return to Center City. Kenney, it might seem, is a likely another neighborhoods mayor. The tech scene flourished under Nutter, and so it has now begun to filter into other parts of the city, from Fishtown to East Passyunk. Maybe that means Kenney can be a neighborhoods mayor with whom a tech community can identify.

This transcript is edited for length and clarity. To enjoy the full conversation, we’ve embedded the full 40-minute interview below. In the full audio, Kenney calls money in politics “a shame,” details building a team during a campaign, talks about riding the subway to work and says he’d welcome Syrian refugees.

Technical.ly Philly: Thank you for being here. Usually Mayors get later [Editor’s note: His keynote was delayed about 20 minutes] the further they are into their tenures. You’re just Mayor-elect, and already?

Jim Kenney: I want to Mayor-elect forever. People high five you, take selfies. It’s awesome. A year from now I’m not sure if that’s going to be the case.

TP: You’ve been alongside mayoral transitions before, but this is your first. What aren’t we seeing?

JK: It’s about putting people around that are more intelligent than you. And making sure you aren’t the smartest person in the room — because if you think you are, you’re really dumb. … I have a really good group of young people around me. I’m 57, somewhat technically inept, I can turn on my phone on but I always bring it to someone young in the office and say, “Can you fix this for me?” The average age, well, I don’t think there is anyone over the age of 40.

TP: On your transition team?

JK: Of my campaign staff and ultimately the staff that wil be in the inner office of the Mayor’s Office. The Commerce Director is my age or older, our Chief Diversity Officer is older than me, but of my core folks who helped make the campaign a success, probably no one is older than 35.

TP: Was that intentional or you just looked back and saw?

JK: Yeah, it just happened. I mean the fact that I was even in the race at all just happened. … Twice before I thought about running for mayor. The first time I was really too young and not mature enough to do it, and the second time my kids were still relatively young. My kids are now 26 and 21, and just, it’s really time consuming to be out away from your kids that much — which I was as a Councilman but nowhere near as much as when you’re Mayor. And this time, I was really actually close to not running, but Ken Trujillo, for personal reasons decided he didn’t want to run or couldn’t run.

TP [to audience]: Ken Trujillo was an early progressive mayoral candidate.

JK: Right, and the people he put around him were a wonderful core of staff that really that had to interview me to decide to work with me. I spent a couple days talking to them and we decided to go and resigned Council, which is a big deal. You’re quitting your job and being unemployed potentially, and we got in 110 days out and it was a sprint, an amazing whirlwind of activity.

TP: So at this event, we’re talking about the future of cities…

JK: One of the things holding us back in the city is our IT deficit. You look at the collapse of 22nd and Market that killed six people.

TP [to audience]: A building collapse in 2013. JK: If we had the ability for [Licenses and Inspections] to communicate with Revenue, through IT, that permit for demolition would have never been issued because the company that did the demolition hadn’t paid taxes is years and had no wage tax accounts and we would have been able to know that. We would have denied the permit to that guy that actually ended up killing six people.

Our IT deficit is really, really critical in terms of a public safety standpoint and from a tax collection standpoint. And disabuse yourself of the notion that there’s $500- or $400-million in unpaid real estate taxes. It’s really not a real number. It’s probably $200 million, which is substantial, but because of the city’s propensity to put interest and penalty on bad debt, instead of wiping out the bad debt like a bank would do, it’s put us in a situation where our conversation about revenue generation is skewed when that average person says, “Well, go collect the money you’re owed before you tax me.”

TP: How will data-informed decision-making come into your administration?

JK: One of the big challenges with IT in government is that you can’t pay peple enough. People who are really talented aren’t working for the government.

I don’t mean to denigrate the work of people in government, but if you’re looking for the top notch IT people, the private sector sucks them up immediately and you can’t pay them. If you’re paying them, your average salary is $120K to $150K, $160K, you can only attract people who are apostles of government, not someone who wants to make $250K, $260K in the private sector. They won’t turn down that money with the additional burden of living in a fishbowl. It’s just hard to attract people.

TP: Now I’d challenge you beacuse you’re in the midst of a mayoral transition. The message whenever you’re attacting talent is that sometimes you have to go beyond the salary, there’s other mission-orientated options. We know there are people working in government IT who have left private-sector jobs. So how are you selling that?

JK: Well, the biggest problem with government, as opposed to the private sector, is that the agency heads, well, we can’t bonus anyone. In the private sector — for the healthcare company I’m on the board of, I’m on the compensation committee — we have a point system and we have a pot of money we’re going to whack up. In the city, I can give people Phillies tickets, but really, who wants that? [Laughter.]

TP: One of your campaign economic development focuses is a return to manufacturing and the Port of Philadelphia. It’s different than scalable software and knowledge workers, something the Nutter administration was among the first to talk about. Describe how you’re approaching economic development.

JK: You have to be multi-faceted. We have a 26 percent poverty rate, 12 or 13 percent of people living in abject poverty. A lot of those folks don’t have a college degree and won’t have a college degree. So when we’re talking about the expansion of the port, we’re talking about jobs people can do to make $35, $40 an hour with health benefits that don’t need a college education. You’ve been trained in maritime skills and I think that’s important.

For example, Philadelphia does about 450,000 containers a year. I think New York does 7 million a year. But the problem with New York and Norfalk, [Va.], is that when you drop a box [shipping container] in either of those ports, it takes five or seven days to get the box on the road and all the time it sits there is money. It’s costing the owner of the box money, and inside that box on average is $300,000 to $400,000.

So in Philadelphia we have the opportunity to turn those around much quicker … we’re 90 miles inland, which used to be, in most cases, a detriment, but the longer the box stays on the water, the cheaper it is to move, and we’re closer by 90 miles to Ohio where the box is going anyway.

So we can attract those kinds of shipping lines because of the turnaround time and then put people to work doing jobs they can do without a college degree. Of course there is all kinds of technology in moving the boxes and inventory and what moves and logistics but that longshoreman — or longshoreperson — can make a good living doing that kind of stuff.

And the other issue is … 30 percent of our residents commute to the suburbs to go to work. Is there some way to go out to those owners in the suburbs and say to them, “Bring a piece of your business here.” Have a downtown presence or a Navy Yard presence. [Editor’s note: The Nutter administration pursued this strategy, calling them gateway offices.]

We have a lot of opportunities. Again, our tax structure isn’t perfect, but we’re working on it, with Harrisburg and trying to figure out this Sweeney-Levy tax plan, where commercial real estate assessments are raised and the revenue raised from that is plowed back into business tax reduction. So there’s a zero-sum game. The concept is the building can’t move but the company can.

TP: So you’ve come out and supported the Sweeney-Levy tax plan?

JK: Yeah, I think it’s the Sterling Act that’s kept us from doing it.

TP: The Sterling Act, where you have to consistently tax…

JK: You have to tax everything at the same rate.

The constitutional amendment needed takes two votes from the legislature and a statewide referendum, so it’s not happening anytime soon. But in the mean time we have to find ways to do government better.

There are so many different issues. … Aramark, apparently has started to due diligence to look for another site. When ownership changes and they have a new CEO, they aren’t wedded to the city, loyalty wise, as the new guy is, so they start looking around and it’s our job to compete with where they’re looking — that’s 1,200 jobs.

TP: Lots of cities have the experience today of a portion of their communities thriving and a portion struggling. Have you already faced in the mayoral transition the need to be able to highlight what is working and be sensitive to what is not?

JK: Things are doing better. I do give the Nutter administration credit. They got us through a recession. That’s not fun. It’s hard to build a legacy on not letting us go bankrupt but they did it. And that’s one of the reasons I chose Rob Dubow and Rebecca Rhynhart to stay because they are battle-tested warriors.

[Editor’s note: Dubow will be Chief Financial Officer and Rhynhart will be Chief Administrative Officer, who will handle offices like 311 and Property Assessment.]

TP: What’s something fun or trivial that you’re excited by becoming Mayor in January?

JK: The fact that my father and mother are still alive, my dad was a firefighter in the city. To see me become mayor, I think is a  huge, wonderful thing to them and it’s a wonderful thing to me to be lucky enough to still have them.

He told me with a straight face, “I don’t want to be fire commissioner.” Yeah, not a problem. [Laughter.] I mean Frank Rizzo made his brother police commissioner.

TP: In this era as Mayor-elect, you’ve been to a hackathon, you’ve attended an angel investor event, you’ve toured some local tech company headquarters: are tech communities are a solid constituency in cities now?

JK: [Nods.] And they’re the exciting fun part of the economy in the private sector.

I was up at Bluecadet, and you go into these places and there are really young smart people working in a totally different way than the traditional office space in a neighborhood on the rise — Fishtown is crazy fun. We have to deal better with how sidewalks are being taken with crime scene tape and putting up cyclone fences taking up the sidewalk.

We’re going to have a really serious plans and requirements when it comes to development. … I used to hate bicycles, because I was a driver. I’d say, “Get out of the way!”

TP: Uh, how recently?

JK: Oh, a few years ago. You have to realize the sidewalk and the streets are shared space. It’s shared by pedestrians, it’s shared by bicyclists, it’s shared by cars. It’s shared by rollerbladers, skateboarders.

TP: There are no rollerbladers.

JK: [Laughter.] I’m old! I’m thinking about the 1980s and big hair. It’s all shared space.

The bike lane phenomenon, the need, it’s there. We’re going to expand that.

TP: To many, you represent a traditional Philadelphia…

JK: I’m a South Philly-born Irish Catholic 57-year-old former Mummer — I was in the Mummer’s Parade for 35 years — and I was not a Frank Rizzo fan.

TP [to audience]: Rizzo, a controversial former Mayor of the City of Philadelphia.

JK: Does anybody not know Frank Rizzo? [Some hands in the audience are raised.] Do yourself a favor and go on YouTube and pull up Frank Rizzo versus Stan Bohrman. It is one of the craziest videos. [Editor’s note: It is the best.]

TP: Could you do an impersonation of something Rizzo says in the video?

JK: I’ll tell you a funny story…

TP: But that’s not an impersonation!

JK: Well, I’ll do it after I preface with the story. I worked for Vince Fumo for about 14 years…

TP [to audience]: A controversial former State Senator…

JK: Frank DiCicco, who was the former Councilman in the First District, and I both worked for Fumo at the same time, and Rizzo had a three-hour radio show every single day. And Fumo was so paranoid about Rizzo saying something about him, we actually had to monitor the radio and tape it every single day. It was insane.

So we decdied, we were bored, so Frank said, “Let me call him up and start punking him.” So there were three things you said — God rest his [Rizzo’s] soul, I hope he doesn’t take it out on me — if you said “Boss” when you got on the radio, you were a former police officer. If you said “Cheech,” you were from South Philly. If you said “Mr. Mayor,” you were just a normal person. So Frank would get on…

TP [to audience]: Frank DiCicco…

JK: DiCicco would get on and say, “hey, Cheech” and Rizzo would get on [Kenney in Rizzo voice here], “I’m going good, Frank from South Philly, how you doin’?”

“I’m good. Mr. Mayor, I have a question for you. When you were a sergeant down on Ninth Street in the Italian Market, were you a bag man for the mob?” [Laughter.] [Rizzo voice] “I know who this is and I’m telling you right now, the FBI is looking at your house.”

Frank once called and said, “Mr. Mayor, you remind me of Dan Quayle.” [To moderator] You wanna explain who Dan Quayle is? [Laughter.] And Rizzo said “Is that so, why is that?”

And Frank says: “You were both draft dodgers.”

And Rizzo says, [Rizzo voice] “I protected this city!” And Frankie says: “I don’t remember the Japanese ever invading Broad Street.”

How did we get on this?

TP: With five minutes left, I can make this relevant! How can you take that traditional rootedness and bring it to the new communities of Philadelphia?

JK: I think with my history and my profile is one that can bridge that gap. I grew up in a neighborhood in South Philly that was extremely racist. It was ugly. The N-word was not an uncommon word there, but my parents would not allow it in their home. I also went to a Jesuit high school, and they fixed me … and gave me the public service gene. … I can still go to South Philly and [South Philly accent] still talk like this, ya know what I mean? I can do all of that, it’s where I came from, but I think I can speak at another level. I think the new people in the city, the — I hate the word Millennial. [Scattered applause.]

I learned something in the campaign. Do not go to beer festivals in the last hour of the beer festival.

So I get out at the Headhouse Square Beer Festival, and get out at Front and South with an hour to go for the event, and these two guys standing outside of Downey’s, and they recognize me, and a guy says to me [drunk voice] “What are you gonna to do for Millennials?”

The Black Lives Matter movement has something really important to say. One of the reasons we decriminalized marijuana had nothing to do with marijuana, it had to do with criminal records. Because 4,200 people a year were being arrested for possession of marijuana and 83 percent of them were African American or people of color, like white people don’t use weed?

Next Eagles home game, we’ll go the tailgate and it’s like Purple Haze.

So you couple stop and frisk — which is abhorrent, it’s abhorrent. My son is 26, he’s a younger version of me. He’s never been stop and frisked in his life — because he is a white male. When you are a 20-year-old African-American kid, going to work and you are stopped on the street and asked to empty your pockets. Do you expect to have a good relationship with police after that happens to you? Once, twice three times? No way.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

  • Tell the Truth II

    The Thousands of Residents of Philadelphia Rizzo abused had the police beat! No one was powerful enough to end it! The Death toll in Philadelphia due to Rizzo and his crew are unknown to this day! But it easily can be in the hundreds! Even today is a taboo subject! Not talked about! A real Hitler of Philadelphia!

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