The billionaires who play politics with America make some of their biggest plays in some of our biggest cities. They identify candidates who share their penchant for “school choice” schemes, vouchers, and privatization—like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—and they pour money into slick TV ads that sometimes tip the balance of urban elections.
Sometime, but not always. Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York in 2013 as a progressive, as were Marty Walsh in Boston and Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka scored a breakthrough victory in 2014 as the candidate of a coalition of union activists and public-education advocates. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced a runoff against Emanuel in Chicago this year and took a solid 44 percent of the vote on April 7. Then, on Tuesday, the guy the Philadelphia Daily News called “Jimmy from the block” beat the big spenders to become the Democratic nominee for mayor of America’s fifth-largest city.
Jim Kenney, a 56-year-old Irish-American pol from South Philly whom few expected to see making a serious bid for the city’s top job this year, won an epic landslide victory and is now the favorite to lead the city after next November’s election. If that happens, Kenney will lead from the left, as a progressive who Pennsylvania Working Families Executive Director Kati Sipp says “ran on a platform of supporting Philly public schools, raising the minimum wage, and ending stop-and-frisk.”
“This election shows that a candidate propped up by big money can be beaten out by a candidate who stands for true progressive values,” explained Sipp.
That’s right. But there is a little more to it.
Kenney did not make a timely embrace of the big-tent progressive politics that is suddenly in vogue—at least among Democrats—as America struggles to focus on issues of racial and economic injustice, environmental crisis, wage stagnation, and income inequality. He practiced it, for decades. When unions went on strike, “Jimmy-from-the-block” showed up with his picket sign—telling folks about how he “washed dishes after school as a member of Local 274” and earned his first union card at 17. When concerns arose about racial and ethnic divisions, he showed up for community meetings and established alliances with African-America, Asian-American, and Latino activists. When he saw discrimination against gays and lesbians, he championed a groundbreaking LGBTQ Equality Bill. When kids were getting busted, facing the threat of criminal records and even jail time for minor offenses, he worked to decriminalize marijuana. When neighborhoods were getting socked by corporate polluters, he helped set up a City Council Environmental Committee to put clean air, clean water, and solar power on the agenda in City Hall.