PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A former longtime Philadelphia councilman with broad union backing is poised to become the next mayor of the nation’s fifth largest city after his resounding win Tuesday in a six-way Democratic primary.
Jim Kenney captured the nomination despite a pro-charter school group spending nearly $7 million in support of challenger Anthony Hardy Williams, a state senator.
“We all must work together if we expect all of Philadelphia to move forward together. That means fighting for universal pre-(kindergarten), community schools, a real living wage and the end to stop and frisk, and by giving every working family the opportunity to succeed, no matter what neighborhood they live in,” Kenney said in accepting the nomination Tuesday night.
The victory all but assures he will be the next mayor in Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7-1. With more than 80 percent of precincts reporting, Kenney was beating Williams by about a more than 2-1 margin. Kenney had 57 percent of the vote to Williams’ 24 percent.
“People of every neighborhood came behind this effort,” Kenney said, name-checking the coalition of first responders, teachers, public school parents, the LGBT community and other supporters. “We need this coalition to grow even larger to fix the challenges facing our great city.”
Kenney served on City Council 23 years before resigning in a bid to replace term-limited Michael Nutter. The 57-year-old will face Republican Melissa Murray Bailey in November.
The primary serves as the de facto mayoral election in a city where no Republican has been elected to the office since 1948, but former councilman Bill Green, who serves on a state board that oversees city schools, told Philly.com Tuesday that he may run as an independent.
Green, whose father was a one-term Philadelphia mayor, said low turnout in Tuesday’s primary showed a lack of enthusiasm for Kenney.
“To me, that says that there’s demand for an alternative,” he said.
Independent spending helped Kenney and Williams dominate the airwaves in a mostly ho-hum campaign that focused on the need to stabilize funding for the city’s struggling school system, the economy and most recently, community-police relations.
In the final weeks of the race, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore vaulted policing and the tense relationship between officers and the community to the top of the debate.
All six Democratic candidates said they would end the police practice of stop and frisk.
Williams went a step further and said he would not retain Charles Ramsey as police commissioner over the issue. His opposition to the widely respected Ramsey — tapped by President Barack Obama to lead a national task force on policing — drew an unusually sharp retort from Nutter, who said anyone not smart enough to ask Ramsey to stay is “probably not smart enough to lead the city.”
Williams campaigned under the unity theme of “One Philadelphia.” After Gray’s death, he sought to portray himself as a voice for the disenfranchised and the underserved at the same time he enjoyed the support of wealthy backers.
“Tonight ends an election, it doesn’t end the values that brought us together over the course of this campaign,” Williams said as he conceded the election Tuesday night. “I want to congratulate Jim Kenney for running campaign that was very, very successful.”
Kenney had the backing of most city unions, including an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police. But he campaigned against stop and frisk and repudiated a 1997 quote — recycled in a Williams attack ad — in which he questioned limitations on police tactics.
Kenney also enjoyed widespread support from the city’s gay community and immigrant groups. He said he supported keeping Philadelphia a sanctuary city for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
The other candidates were former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, former judge Nelson Diaz, former Philadelphia Gas Works executive Doug Oliver and former state Sen. Milton Street.
Outside influences played an outsized role in the television ad blitz. The American Cities PAC, funded by deep-pocketed investors who favor the growth of charter schools, spent nearly $7 million to support Williams, campaign finance reports showed.
Super PACs backed by unions and progressive causes fueled Kenney’s run with about $2 million in combined spending, according to the reports.
That independent spending gave Kenney and Williams an edge over their budget-conscious rivals, three of whom waited until late in the campaign to start advertising.
Abraham, a stalwart from a bygone generation of Philadelphia politics, aired a pair of commercials in the final weeks before the vote criticizing Kenney and Williams’ debate over charter versus public schools as misguided when the priority should first be improving education.
Her run was dogged by concerns about her age after the 74-year-old fainted at a televised debate in April. She also encountered criticism for her propensity to seek the death penalty so often during her tenure that The New York Times described her as “America’s deadliest DA.”
The primary also served as a coming out party for Doug Oliver, the youngest Democrat. The 40-year-old former gas company executive campaigned as the closest thing to a millennial in a city where more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million people are between 20 and 35 years old, up 6 percent from a decade ago.
Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale and Albert Stumm contributed to this report.