In a debate that contained testy defenses along with lighthearted banter, the six Democratic candidates vying to become Philadelphia’s next mayor met at the Temple University Performing Arts Center in preparation for the May 19 primary.
Along with issues that have attracted the most attention throughout this year’s race – poverty, education and pension reform – the candidates were asked to reflect on recent protests and riots in Baltimore following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
On the question of how race relations in the city embody the hashtag “PhillyisBaltimore,” moderator Dave Davies, a veteran political reporter for WHYY, asked three candidates of different races to respond: former State Sen. Milton Street, who is black, former City Councilman James Kenney, who is white, and Nelson Diaz, a Temple trustee and former judge who is Latino.
Kenney said he agreed with the popular slogan. Arguing for more police training and a force with a similar racial makeup as the city, Kenney said there is a “feeling of helplessness” in many low income neighborhoods when it comes to crime and economic opportunity.
The former city councilman also took the question as an opportunity to pivot toward an issue he championed in City Hall and during the current race.
“Decriminalization of marijuana is a major issue between police and young people,” Kenney said.
Diaz, who was the first Puerto Rican admitted to Beasley School of Law, graduating in 1972, said he spent the last 45 years involved with civil rights.
“We are close to having the same situation occur in this city,” Diaz said. “It’s really important to be able to develop community policing so that you have the police a part of community, the community part of the police.”
Street, whose brother John Street served two terms as mayor between 2000 and 2008, said the number of officer involved shootings within the city – 43 in 2013, according to the department – represented a problem with city’s management of the department, not with the force itself.
“Why would we malign the whole entire police department because the mayor and the police commissioner can’t manage [officers involved in shootings]?” said Street, who argued for more civic organizations to work with police districts.
Adding himself to the discussion, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who represents the 8th district in South Philly and Delaware County, delivered a scathing review of the police department, which he said was “going backwards” in its relationship with black Philadelphians.
“For a human being to shoot down another human being eight times in the back means you don’t see them as your equal,” Williams said, referring to the police shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, where the officer involved has been charged with murder. “It has to stop.”
Near the end of the debate, when the candidates were given the opportunity to question one of their opponents, they all directed their questions at Jim Kenney, considered the marginal frontrunner in the race.
A poll released by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of several labor unions supporting Kenney, found he led Williams by one percentage point, 26 to 25 percent, placing ahead of former district attorney Lynne Abraham at 22 percent with 18 percent undecided. None of the other trailing candidates’ numbers were mentioned in the poll’s release. Abraham’s campaign also conducted a poll that showed Abraham was leading.
Abraham and Diaz both took hard jabs at Kenney, the former questioning his “millions of dollars of dark money” support from unions leaders and the later accusing him of campaigning with city council candidate Manny Morales, who has been accused of posting racist Facebook messages. After Diaz refused to back Morales, a group of Latino ward leaders endorsed Kenney, the Inquirer reported last month.
Kenney denied the accusation, saying he only met Morales once, going so far as to accuse the 7th District candidate of “photo bombing” him.
Kenney took a more serious tone with Abraham, firing back with his own question about her decision to release one year of tax returns instead of three, to which the candidate responded “I get the same amount of money every year,” from her public pension.
In a lighter moment, former Philadelphia Gas Works executive Doug Oliver, seated next to Kenney, asked him to elaborate on why he said he would vote for Oliver if he had to pick another candidate.
“I think you’re young, I think you’re handsome,” Kenney said of his opponent, who at 40-years-old is the youngest candidate in the race. “I also think that you represent the new generation in our country and our city.”
The winner of this month’s primary will likely face GOP candidate and businesswoman Melissa Murray Bailey in the November general election. A Republican has not won the Philadelphia general election since two-time incumbent Bernard Samuel in 1947.
John Moritz can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JCMoritzTU.