January 16, 2017
Jim Kenney is still getting adjusted to people wanting to take pictures with him and ask for his autograph. In office for just over a year, however, the Philadelphia mayor's popularity has waned in some quarters since the new year, as the city's soda tax went into effect. Sure, there was always some opposition to the tax, but now cries of protest are rising as consumers reach deeper into their pockets to buy beverages and juices with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Some people are downright angry.
But the soda tax is one of Kenney's biggest achievements of Year One (even as it is challenged in court). It is the revenue vehicle for a host of initiatives, including universal pre-K and long-overdue improvements to city recreation centers. He's working to implement other initiatives in 2017.
In four days, however, Donald Trump will take the oath of office as the nation's 45th president of the United States. During the campaign, the Republican promised to yank federal funding from sanctuary cities like Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. “Block funding for sanctuary cities ... no more funding. We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths,” Trump said during a speech last September in Phoenix.
Mayor Kenney sat down with PhillyVoice for an interview last Thursday morning and addressed the soda tax, sanctuary status and how leading a Democratic city in the Trump age will differ, plus a few other items that he would like to tackle in 2017:
PhillyVoice: What challenges do you foresee ahead in fighting off Republican threats against liberal cities with sanctuary status?
Kenney: We’ll see how it goes. They haven’t taken over yet. They haven’t started. We’ll see what comes up from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and we’ll deal with it as it comes. I’m not walking back from taking care of and protecting our citizens. Philadelphia is safer because it is a sanctuary city. What the opponents of sanctuary cities don’t know, don’t recognize or probably don’t even care to recognize is that the immigrant population of our city, for the most part, are law-abiding people, even though they’re not documented, and they are more likely victims of crime or witnesses to a crime.
If we drive them underground and make them afraid of our police, our city will be less safe. We’ve been making great strides this year in reducing Part I crime. We’re down in homicides and down in shootings so far this year. The city will be a less safe place if our immigrant population is afraid to talk to our police.
People promoting the elimination of sanctuary cities are doing it purely for political gain and don’t have the responsibility of running a city or keeping people safe.
PV: The city controller says revenues from the tobacco tax and the soda tax will be lower than anticipated. Where does that leave the city?
Kenney: It leaves the city where the Legislatures, both Harrisburg and Washington, won’t provide sufficient resources for educating our kids. Therefore, we have a 26 percent poverty rate, because our kids don’t have a good chance to get a good start. We have to find revenue to supplant what other government [entities] used to provide for us and don’t provide us anymore.
Our kids come first, and I know people, well some people, are upset about the beverage tax, but if they can point me to some other areas of revenue how I can get pre-K done and all of the other infrastructure improvements we need, I’ll be happy to listen to them.
The soda companies, the bottlers and the beverage people are multibillion-dollar companies. They don’t have a need to pass this tax on. They can pass a portion of it on, or they can eat it. But they want to make a show right now. There’ll be a two-, three-, four-month settling of people yelling and screaming and going to the suburbs and not buying soda anymore.
It’s not like soda is the elixir of life and you need to drink one every day or you die. I think it’s kind of a specious argument that everyone is making. But, I have no other ways of generating revenue to educate our kids.
Our kids come first, and people are angry at me. I understand.
PV: Do you sense a tug of war between District Attorney Seth Williams and the police department? If so, is there anything you would like to do about it and is it a good look for the city?
Kenney: I don’t really think so. You have to understand everyone has a constituency. The FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] has a constituency, it’s their police officers, and that’s a good thing. They stand up for them. They take positions sometimes that are counter to what other elected officials, sometimes myself, or sometimes another independently elected official.
[The police and DA] work together very well, and I think sometimes there’s these little blips that go away.
PV: Do you think the rift between Williams and the police department is overblown?
Kenney: A little bit. If there is no controversy, there’s no story. So if you create a controversy, or you take a situation and build a controversy around it, there’s a story. It’s just the way the business works.
PV: Tell us about your youth initiative to make the city a better, safer place for children?
Kenney: We’ve actually added a number of PAL [Police Athletic League] centers the last year. One specifically out in Grays Ferry, which is really needed, on 32nd and Wharton. That was an existing Salvation Army building with no programming and a beautiful gym. We hooked up the Salvation Army and PAL. Now there is a center that opened a few months ago, and it’s overrun with kids.
That’s a way to have our children get a good relationship with the police, at the PAL centers, not in the back of a police car in handcuffs.
We’re building those relationships with our kids every day. We think PAL is extremely effective in doing that. Kids have productive safe places, with positive mentors around them. It makes it easier for them to become good young adults. I think it’s four or five PALs that we’ve opened in the last year or so.
We have our Rebuild program, which is based on the beverage tax, being able to borrow $300 million in city borrowing and another $100 million from the William Penn Foundation. Hopefully, another $100 million from the state and the federal government that we leverage with that money to a half-billion redo for our recreation centers, libraries and parks, starting in neighborhoods that are most devastated and struggling. We want to make sure kids have a center that they can go to after school that they’re proud of and can get good programming, after-school help and good mentoring.
All of us who grew up in the city grew up in a rec center or a park. We understand how that kept us safe over the years. We want to give our children today the same experience.
PV: What have you learned about yourself after your first year in office?
Kenney: I’m pretty much the same person that I was. I’m not all that thrilled with the trappings of “Your honor,” and all of that stuff. I’m a little embarrassed by it sometimes. You have to remember that you’re the same person that you’ve always been, and you can’t let your head be inflated too much. I treat people the way you want to be treated, be respectful, be helpful and be positive.
It’s hard sometimes when you’re facing issues that can be depressing and stressful. But, it’s a good first year, and I have a really good team. I could never have done all of this by myself. No one can. Understand where you fit in the scheme of things, do your best and stay in your lane.
PV: What’s been your biggest surprise as mayor?
Kenney: The level of ownership that people have of the office. Not of me. I think this office is more visible to Philadelphians more so than the governor, for sure. People want to talk to you, they want to get a picture with you. They want to shake your hand. It’s kids asking you for your autograph, which is embarrassing. I mean, I don’t play for the Sixers or Flyers or anything like that.
So it’s hard to translate in my own mind why any young person would want my autograph. But it’s that level of ownership from the office of mayor that you have to get used to, and it was really kind of shocking to me.
PV: Should Philadelphians be afraid of a Trump presidency?
Kenney: Not necessarily. I’m open-minded. I certainly don’t agree with his positions and didn’t support him. I fought for Hillary Clinton. He’s the president of the United States come Jan. 20. I don’t fear them. I’m concerned with some of the policies that they’ve talked about. We’ll see how easy or difficult it is to implement them.
I’m never going to be in a situation where I’m shooting spitballs at him because it’s not productive for the city. We’ll do what we have to do to protect our folks. We’ll do what we have to do to stand up for what we believe in. If we need the courts to do that or we need our congressional delegation or Senate delegation, especially Sen. [Bob] Casey, we’ll rely on them and do the best we can.
Plus, we’ll try to make inroads with the new administration through friends and relations that we’ve had over the years in the Republican party.
PV: Do you anticipate a fight on your hands with Trump?
Kenney: He said he’s going to do what he’s going to do, but I don’t know how he’s going to do it. I don’t know how you deport 800,000 DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] kids. Even his nominees said that’s not going to be possible. How do you deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? That’s not plausible.
He’s going to build a wall along the Rio Grande? The senator from Texas said that’s not going to happen. Things are said during a campaign that obviously are not realistic. We’ll see how it goes. But we’re not going back on our philosophies or what we believe in. We’re going to do what we can to maneuver the best we can.
PV: What is your vision for the city in 2017 and for your first term?
Kenney: We want to continue to expand pre-K, continue to expand community schools, win the beverage tax lawsuit, which we’ve done already. We’re in the next step. We’re the only city that they’re suing, which is really disappointing as far as I’m concerned, as it relates to why they’ve treated Philadelphia the way they have. They haven’t sued any other jurisdiction.
PV: Why do you think that is?
Kenney: I have no idea. You have to ask them. It doesn’t help spending all of this money on legal fees. I’m glad that we’re in the position that we’re in, having won the first round — and won it soundly with a very strong opinion from [Judge Gary S. Glazer], which is going to make it difficult for another court to overturn.
We’ll see how it goes because I want to get this over with and collect the tax in earnest. We want to expand the programs in pre-K and get those other 1,000 kids in next year and have those other four, five, six new community schools and get moving with the borrowing so we can get the city to a point where we can begin to make progress on people’s poverty.
PV: Any other initiatives you would like to tackle in 2017?
Kenney: We’re tackling the opiate crisis — this disgraceful overprescription of opiate drugs that get people eventually addicted to heroin and kill them. I have doctors that are trying to make a buck off people’s misery and pharmaceutical companies that really don’t care. They just keep on producing the stuff. OxyContin, oxycodone, all of these pain medications that are overprescribed, and when the prescriptions run out, you have people still seeking that high feeling that they wind up doing heroin and wind up on Gurney Street or wind up in an alley somewhere. We had 900 overdose deaths last year. It’s three times the murder rate.
The root of it is the pharmaceutical industry and doctors who are malicious and want to make money off of people’s misery. That’s where it’s coming from. They’re all legal prescriptions initially. Where do you think they get the OxyContin and the oxycodone? They get it from a doctor.
Did you ever see Macklemore’s video [“Drug Dealer”]? Pull it up. “My drug dealer was a doctor, wanna kill me for a dollar.” It’s one of the most powerful music videos I’ve ever seen. That’s how good it is. I’m not a big fan of his necessarily, but he clearly had some personal or familial experience with this problem. That’s how powerful that video is.
PV: Which Philly pro sports team will you be holding a world championship parade for before your time in office is over?
Kenney: I’m doing an analysis of where we are starting next year. You’re going to laugh when I say this, but I think it’s going to be the Sixers. Yep, I believe so, based on their young talent coming together. You have Ben Simmons coming back, you have Joel Embiid and the guard, T.J. McConnell, is fun.
They’re fun. Hey look, I think the Flyers have a chance, too. I think with the Eagles, and the talent in the NFL is very, very strong at the top end of it, it’s going to be hard breaking through that, even if they get to the playoffs. The Phillies are fun, and I love them. I don’t know what their pitching looks like.
I think the Sixers have some raw, amazing talent. I think Embiid is fun to watch.
I love all of our sports teams. I just think breaking through [for the Eagles] to a Super Bowl with this particular team at this point may be a little longer than it will be for the Sixers to get to where they need to be.
PV: Are you thinking of running for a second term?
Kenney: Oh yeah, I’m running. My intention is to run. I want to get this stuff done that we started. I’m not going to walk away from something that we started that someone may take in a different direction or stop altogether. We’re committed to these initiatives, and it’s going to take more than one term to do it.
PV: I know that you can be very hard on yourself. Are you pleased with the job that you’ve done so far?
Kenney: I think I’ve done an adequate job so far. We’ve followed through on the things that we’ve said we would follow through on. Everything has not been perfect by any stretch. There’s still a high bar to meet, but I think we’re going in the right direction. I’m not resting on my laurels or giving myself a parade. We’ve done a satisfactory job, as far as I’m concerned, and other people can give us big kudos, and that’s fine. We’re happy for it, but I think it’s been satisfactory so far.