Interviews & Profiles
Jim Kenney opens up about his proudest moments in office – and his biggest mistakes
In an exclusive interview, Philly’s mayor talks soda tax, gun violence, COVID-19 and his plans for the future.
Philadelphia has its fair share of polarizing politicians, and given everything that Mayor Jim Kenney has had to grapple with throughout his seven years in office, there's an argument to be made that he has carved out a spot for himself near the top of that list.
Having served in public office for the last 30 years – or as he likes to say, “the last 300 years” – the two-term mayor has overseen a city beset by a global pandemic, civil unrest, and a staggering increase in murders and gun violence.
To assess his complicated tenure and his likely legacy, City & State spoke with Kenney about his time in office, touching on his biggest accomplishments, the city’s most pressing challenges and what his future may look like when he eventually leaves City Hall.
The sweetened beverage tax
Ask Kenney what his crowning achievement is, and he’s quick to list his sweetened beverage tax as one of the most significant accomplishments. The 1.5-cent tax, approved in 2016, applies to sweetened beverages like soda and is levied on retailers and distributors that do business in the city.
The bulk of the revenue from the tax is put toward pre-K programming and the city’s Rebuild initiative, which invests in parks, recreation centers and libraries. “I think education is the primary – and maybe almost sole way – out of poverty, and the only way to raise your stature, your status, in life,” Kenney said, noting that beverage tax revenue has allowed roughly 10,000 children to get a pre-K education.
Kenney described the beverage tax, and the investments it funds, as one of the “core” successes his administration had in his first term. According to data from the Philadelphia City Controller, the tax has raised $333.9 million as of June 30, 2021, with $178.9 million going to the city’s General Fund. Another $122 million, approximately 36.6% of the total tax revenue, has gone toward pre-K programs.
Kenney expressed a sense of bewilderment as to why other municipalities haven’t taken up similar measures, given the success of the program, which has also been linked to lower soda consumption among Philadelphia youth. “Think about how much better off we’d be as a state if all of our kids got a pre-K start – if they wound up being able to go to affordable or free public university or college – how much more productive and wealthy the state would be, as opposed to where we find ourselves,” he said.
Philadelphia’s record murder rate
While Kenney has had his share of successes during his tenure, the city’s murder rate has not been among them. As of the end of May, there were more than 200 murders committed in Philadelphia, and the city shattered a dubious record in 2021, recording 562 homicides in the calendar year, according to data from the Philadelphia Police Department.
There’s a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to who should take the blame. Kenney has amassed his fair share of critics, as has Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for his progressive approach to prosecuting.
Kenney, however, has a different take. “Violence and homicides and shootings are multifaceted, complicated situations. They relate to a lot of different things – education, they relate to poverty, they relate to addiction or drug sales. They relate to social media, and how people interact on social media,” he said. “All those things are terrible and we here in Philadelphia work every day to address those issues. The only common denominator in all of this mayhem and death is guns.”
Addressing gun violence
While many are quick to lay the blame at Kenney and Krasner’s feet, Kenney says culpability for the city’s gun violence struggles lies elsewhere – namely, in Harrisburg. He told City & State that the state’s gun preemption law – which prohibits the city from enacting gun restrictions that are more stringent than the state’s – has handcuffed city officials when it comes to combating gun violence. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have both sued the state over its preemption provisions.
“Pennsylvania is probably one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to the legislature’s view on the availability of guns, not only handguns – semi-automatic handguns – but weapons of war,” he said. “It’s like asking someone to enter a ring to have a prize fight, and you tie both hands behind the fighter’s back and ask him why he got knocked out.”
Kenney said loosening or repealing the state’s preemption law would allow the city to better regulate straw purchases and implement its own city-level restrictions.
“What I need is some ability, again, to fight straw purchasing, because it’s a huge problem. I need some ability to have some requirements,” Kenney said. “If you want to get a driver’s license in Pennsylvania, you gotta take a written test. I gotta take a practical driving test. I have to have proof of insurance. I have to do a number of things in order to get behind the wheel of a car legally in Pennsylvania because they can be deadly when not operated properly. Guns are deadly by nature.”
Philadelphia’s COVID-19 response
Crime in Philadelphia isn’t the only controversy that has raised eyebrows in the Cradle of Liberty. The city’s COVID-19 response has also drawn plenty of scorn due to a vaccine scandal and the city’s on-again, off-again approach to masks and facial coverings.
In 2021, Philadelphia selected a startup, dubbed Philly Fighting COVID, to run vaccination clinics. But the arrangement quickly came to an end once reports surfaced that the organization abandoned testing plans in Black and Latino neighborhoods and switched its status to a for-profit company, according to a WHYY report. Andrei Doroshin, the organization’s CEO, was also accused of taking vaccine doses off-site to administer to friends.
The city also implemented, and quickly revoked, a citywide mask mandate within the span of a few days earlier this year. Kenney said the city has been upfront about its mistakes. “We didn’t shy away from the mistakes we made and we’re trying to correct the stuff that we need to correct; we’re really moving back in the right direction,” he said.
The mayor added that getting Philadelphians vaccinated remains a chief priority of his administration. “The more people we have vaccinated, the safer it’s going to be,” he said.
Kenney’s 2022 budget proposal
Kenney caught some flak upon introducing his 2022 budget proposal, with critics saying it doesn’t go far enough to address gun violence and income inequality. The $5.6 billion budget plan would raise city spending by 5.5% and use just $335 million of the city’s $800 million in American Rescue Plan funds. The proposal includes $184 million in anti-violence initiatives, and increased funding for both the city’s police department and the School District of Philadelphia.
Members of Philadelphia City Council have criticized Kenney’s budget, with Council Member Derek Green saying of Kenney’s budget in March: “I don’t get that sense of urgency in reference to addressing that public safety crisis in our city.” At the same time, the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia backed the idea of a wealth tax in the city.
In defense of his budget, Kenney said his administration will get a budget done on time that satisfies some and likely leaves others yearning for more. On the topic of federal COVID-19 funds, Kenney said city officials need to keep an eye on the future when determining how to best use federal aid.
“I’m a Democrat. We’re always being accused of just spending and spending and spending. At some point in time we have to look at what might happen in the future,” he said. “There’s going to be other downturns and we think what we’re proposing is responsible but also effective.”
As for a wealth tax, Kenney said the state constitution’s uniformity clause prevents the implementation of such a levy, adding that he’ll remain open to other initiatives proposed by members of Philadelphia City Council.
Kenney’s political future
Kenney has been rumored to be interested in future runs for office. Kenney ultimately decided not to run for governor this year after reports surfaced in 2019 that he was considering a gubernatorial bid.
That ultimately didn’t happen, and while Kenney said he’ll “never say never” about another run for office, he’s eyeing a break once his term expires.
“I need some time off,” he said. “I’d like to travel a little bit, I’d like to just deflate. I have a personality that kind of internalizes all this stuff, and I don’t think it’s always good for me, physically or mentally. So I’m going to take a little time to just think about what I might want to do in the future.”
But with Kenney slated to be 65 by the time he leaves office, he joked that he may just be old enough to begin a career in Washington. “I’ll be 65, which is not necessarily a time to start a career,” he said, “although if I went to Washington, I’d probably be one of the youngest people there – which says a lot about Congress.”