It is a bottom-up, people’s victory that included the exercise of Black political power
On May 19th, the voters of Philadelphia went to the polls and elected former City Council member Jim Kenney as the Democratic Party’s nominee for mayor, making it likely that he will become the city’s next mayor.
Kenney’s 30 point victory over State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams exceeded even the 27-point lead indicated by a poll released one week before the race. Ultimately, in a six-person race, Kenney emerged with 56 percent of the vote, a clear mandate.
The results represent a turning point for Philadelphia’s Public Education movement, which dealt a decisive blow to privateers, by incubating a broad alliance between labor unions and progressives, and through backing a mayoral candidate that while white, could credibly claim to represents the interests of African-American Philadelphians.
Some pundits, including Dave Davies in his recent piece “Ten reasons for Kenney’s improbable win” claim that the issue of Education “didn’t matter that much.” He cites the lack of substantive debate over the issue at the many mayoral forums.
However that analysis misses two key points. The first is that the issue of public education being what occupied voter’s minds is what allowed for Kenney’s diverse coalition to hold. It’s an electoral coalition that would not have held if other issues were the driving force. Second, Davies incorrectly portrays what has fundamentally been a power struggle, as only a debate between ideas.
The growing popular support of the public education movement forced the Williams campaign to retreat from what has been State Senator Williams hallmark issue: advocacy of Charter Schools. The Williams campaign looking to change the subject paired with significant coverage of wealthy suburban financiers seeking to influence the election shaped the perception of Anthony Hardy Williams. He didn’t appear as a good faith actor who believed Charter expansion was necessary to provide education to underserved communities. He instead appeared like an agent of privatization.
This offers a key lesson for the public education movement that we will get to later.
The victory for the public education movement was underscored by the election of fierce public education activist Helen Gym – who herself had a back and forth with Williams during the final weeks of the campaign and by the winning “Yes” vote on ballot question one. Voters via non-binding resolution voted to abolish the School Reform Commission (SRC) a key demand of the public education movement.
A win – and a challenge – for the public education movement
The Jim Kenney victory represents a second win for the public education movement, following the November 2014 victory of Gov. Tom Wolf. Wolf won in a landslide over Gov. Tom Corbett in the 2014 race for governor, in which public education was the most important issue. Corbett’s policy of education austerity, including draconian spending cuts for public schools, universities and social welfare programs, sought to balance budgets on the backs of children.
The Philadelphia school district—with its share of children from poor and working families and communities of color—bore the brunt of educational austerity from Harrisburg. Philly sustained one third of the statewide public education cuts. These School defunding measures were part of Corbett’s agenda of public school privatization using charter schools and voucher advocacy. Ultimately, the education cuts, which took place alongside abundant corporate tax giveaways, were a major source of anger for Pennsylvania voters.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia public school system, underfunded, marginalized and saddled with a state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), closed 23 schools and laid off thousands of teachers, administrators, counselors and support staff. Wolf succeeded in capitalizing on voter disenchantment, and was swept into office with a mandate to solve the education crisis and restore funding for schools. Further, Wolf, who did not move to the center or to the right to get elected, and defeated the corporatist New Democrat Allyson Schwartz in the primary, said publicly the SRC should be abolished.
The emergence of education as the most important issue in the minds of the public is unprecedented, and speaks to broader themes including the crucial role of government, providing an opportunity for people to unite around a progressive agenda.
In addition, the Philadelphia mayoral race has brought further attention to the issue of education reform and “school choice”, and a roadmap for the public education movement.
The public education movement must modify its approach and clarify its message if it is to achieve long-term success. In the past, the public education movement has railed against charter schools, but the strategy has failed in large part because it’s been paired with an often blind defense of the status quo. White middle class liberals and teachers unions, who are against vouchers and charter schools, have failed to understand or speak to the unfulfilled promise of Brown v. Board of Education, and the sad conditions of the public schools in communities of color. Through Jim Crow style underfunding and poor leadership, these schools are doing a disservice to African-American, Latino, & Asian children, and are viewed as part of the cradle to prison pipeline, hence the gravitation towards charter schools.
Although there is disagreement within the black community, black Democrats support vouchers and charter schools by significant margins.
However, while many black working-class parents see “school choice” as what is best for the child, they will reject “school privatization” with the hard learned understanding that the implication is their children will be boxed out. In the past, the public education movement has been reluctant to rely on such messaging, fearing it would play into the demonization of teachers or perhaps be too broad or complex for people to comprehend.
The public education movement that brings Kenney into office however is a departure from this old losing approach. Progressive Philly Rising itself was founded by grassroots organizations who decided to back John Hanger’s gubernatorial primary bid, precisely because he was willing to say aloud that we are up against a right-wing attempt at privatization.
One fundamental pillar of the movement has been the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS). ). It’s a coalition that includes the Teacher’s Union (PFT), and SEIU, & UNITE HERE who represent other schools workers. It includes student organizations like Youth United for Change (YUC) and Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). And it includes parent and community organizations like Action United and BP-SOS. As a result of progressive leadership facilitating the input of this diverse coalition, PCAPS has not conceptualized the education fight narrowly rather it’s advocated for policies that address poverty and mass incarceration and called for schools to be hubs of community life.
Following the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, PFT President Jerry Jordan along with Hiram Rivera and Rapheal Randall, the respective executive directors of PSU and YUC penned an Op-Ed, “We assert that Black Lives Matter” tying the Black Lives Matter struggle to the struggle for Public Education.
And we’ve seen the emergence of the Working Educators Caucus (WE) within the Teacher’s Union. This caucus has supported and pressured the Teacher’s Union to be better and is modeled of off the Chicago Teacher’s Union that has found immense success in involving students, parents and the broader community towards a Social Justice Unionism.
The takeaway is that the Public Education movement wins when it conceives of itself broadly as a progressive force, taking on racism and poverty, fighting for everyone to receive a quality education and fighting against privatization.
The Labor – Progressive alliance
A political terrain shaped by the struggle for Public Education and a Labor Movement that planned in order to be united is what allowed for the key to Kenney’s victory: assembling a broad winning coalition. It included nearly all of Philadelphia’s demographic groups, the majority of labor unions, a high level of support from African-Americans, and progressives. Further, his positions in favor of immigrant rights, LGBT rights, and marijuana decriminalization made his candidacy credible. That New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came out in support of Kenney underscores the political potency of progressives and the labor movement united as a winning bloc.
And as such its also important we recognize the threat to that winning bloc: Philadelphia’s anti-union media.
The Philadelphia media has been rampant in its anti-unionism. Some of it seemed designed to place a wedge between unions and progressives. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s endorsement of Helen Gym qualified she will be good
“provided she maintains some daylight between herself and her union supporters”
Its less than kosher endorsement of Williams ended with
“Because the unions backing Kenney already wield too much influence, The Inquirer’s choice for the Democratic nomination is ANTHONY WILLIAMS.”
Their vitriol for labor unions was made all the more visible, when you realize they had to pick a reason to oppose Kenney, after being told to by their owner. One is left wondering if their animus towards labor unions is a jealousy towards workers who get to negotiate with ownership, not simply fall in line.
Philadelphia Magazine’s “…No-Bullshit Mayoral Election Guide” guide called Kenney the candidate of “Big Labor” – well, allow Progressive Philly Rising to be among those calling BULLSHIT!
Philadelphia remains of major American cities, the one with the highest poverty rate, and there is nothing that has been demonstrated to address economic inequality more than the power of labor unions.
The anti-union media and the Williams campaign both had a vested interest in Johnny Doc and “Big Labor” being represented as an equally illegitimate force as the Bala Cynwyd-based Susquehanna International Group (SIG), whose principals poured money in to the American Cities PAC – a PAC founded to support Williams.
Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik, and Jeff Yass of SIG, were treated with kid gloves, simply as “school choice” advocates rather than financial traders who stood to profit from the opening up of a new “education market.”
This Philadelphia Magazine graphic (to the left) shows the equivalency wasn’t true in terms of financial support. However the more fundamental reason the proposition isn’t true is because labor unions are worker organizations with democratically elected leadership, who are fighting for the folks at the bottom to get our fair share of the pie, and have voice at the job and in society. They are funded through pooling the resources of working-class people, and that money is used towards fighting for our shared interest.
For those of us who hope Jim Kenney will govern with people across the city in mind, facilitating people in every neighborhood’s ability to exercise agency over our collective future, there is no partner more conducive to that form of governance than Organized Labor.
We’ve seen the image of a city that the Chamber of Commerce believes in during Mayor Nutter’s term, now let us now see the city that Librarians, Teachers, Bus Drivers, Hotel Workers, Nurses, Taxi Drivers, and Sanitation workers can build.
This mayoral primary’s progressive outcome, like most other progressive advances starts at the bottom. In addition to the Public Education movement, the era of #BlackLivesMatter and mass incarceration has challenged lawmakers to assess their opinions on race and criminal justice issues, and certainly Kenney, who has departed from the “tough on crime” views often associated with his South Philly white working class base, is no exception.
A Kenney victory is advantageous for progressives, but the struggle continues. Electoral coalitions often become governing coalitions and there are potentially troublesome components of the Kenney electoral coalition. One is Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, under the leadership of John McNesby. McNesby has defended problem cops and suggested that anti-police brutality protestors are in league with “professional hate-mongers” and “media-fueled mob rule and sensationalism.” Another supporter that should be on our watch list is Phil Rinaldi of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, operator of the South Philly oil refinery and a member of Kenney’s policy committee. Rinaldi wants to build a large pipeline and turn the city into a global energy hub. If this can be done in a way that doesn’t make Philadelphia a staple of the pollution economy or exacerbate long patterns of environmental racism, it remains to be seen. Also solidly in Kenney’s camp were the politically prized “New Philadelphian” – the incoming group of disproportionately white and middle to upper-middle class. They were with Kenney for the progressive reason that they believe in Public Education, but as a pool, they are often too quick to demand a city that suffers from deep poverty and institutional racism, be responsive instead to the needs and demands of this incoming privileged class. They are for example a political base for the 10 year tax abatement, a policy that may attract newcomers, but at the expense of the stability and power of long-term working-class residents. Another way to understand them is a potential political base for the neo-liberal agenda of business interests marked by Matt Ruben in his piece “Insider: 5 Election Day Lessons for Progressives.”
The Kenney victory involved an expression of black working-class political power.
Corean Holloway, is an African-American woman who grew up in South Carolina, she moved to Philadelphia decades ago to be with her husband. She works in the Laundry Department at the Radisson Warwick Hotel, she’s a union committee leader of the Housekeeping Department and on the leadership body of Unite Here Local 274, a diverse but majority Black labor union that represents hotel workers and stadium workers, and endorsed Kenney.
In her time at the Radisson she’s lead countless efforts of workers standing up for themselves, sometimes against racism. She sent chills through a worker meeting in the cafeteria by saying aloud the n-word, so that everyone could hear what a restaurant manager had called the cooks. Management had refused to fire the manager before that day, but they retreated from her righteous indignation, and dismissed him immediately following that meeting.
This is to say that “Ms. Corean” as her co-workers call her, is not under an illusion that the election of President Obama generated an era free of anti-Black racism.
She’s a woman who understands her interests and after hearing a union brother’s concerns about the racialized nature of the Mayor’s race, she responded with clarity. In her slow and prideful South Carolina borne drawl she said “I told Clarence…” an African-American co-worker from her department, “…cause he was going to vote for Williams., I told him ‘one thing we’re not going to do – we’re not going to go by color, we’re going to vote for who’s best for us as a Union.” And Clarence, who trusted Ms. Corean and for good reason responded, “I’m glad you told me.”
In the case of Jim Kenney, critics point to his relationship with John Dougherty of the Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the sway the union leader could have over Kenney.
However, it was black labor leader Henry Nicholas of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees 1199C, and not Dougherty, who led the labor movement in uniting behind Kenney, with “Johnny Doc” a relatively reluctant latecomer. To paint Dougherty as the muscle behind Kenney is to disregard the grassroots, working-class black agency and coalescing of black interests that were a part of Kenny’s winning alliance.
In addition, the support by the Northwest Coalition of black middle-class politicos—including state Rep. Dwight Evans, Stephen Kinsey and Cherelle Parker, and City Councilmembers Marian Tasco and Cindy Bass—was a boost to the Kenney campaign. In the final days before the election, City Council president Darrell L. Clarke also endorsed Kenney. The Kenney campaign succeeded capturing large swaths of the black vote, primarily in the North and Northwest (Williams prevailed in the Southwest and parts of West Philadelphia). Further, many African-Americans were dissatisfied with Williams as a candidate, and his conservative positions on school privatization left him susceptible to claims that his policies were hurtful to the black community.
The unexpected role of race in this mayoral campaign—the capacity of black voters to vote their interests rather than their skin color— continues to call into question the distinction between the interests of the current black political class in this city, and the interests of the majority of African-Americans.
With Jim Kenney succeeding in the role of working class protagonist and now likely on his way to the mayor’s office, progressives and labor have demonstrated an ability to unite on the grassroots level for the sake of political empowerment. Kenney won, but the victory goes to the people.