Democratic mayoral candidate and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, left, and former City Councilman James Kenney take part in a debate, Monday, May 4, 2015, at Temple University in Philadelphia. The primary election is scheduled to take place on May 19. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

One Democratic candidate has switched up his rhetoric on criminal justice reform entirely, but voters don’t appear to be buying it.

Jim Kenney entered Philadelphia's mayoral race as the clear standard bearer for criminal justice reform. He declared his candidacy not long after celebrating the city's decriminalization of marijuana, a cause for which he had long been a lonely and passionate advocate on the City Council.

He framed decriminalization as a civil rights issue, calling it an "opportunity to keep young people in our city, many of them African Americans, out of the criminal justice system." He added that "in some ways it’s been decriminalized for quite some time for a certain race of people [if] you go to a Willie Nelson concert, or Phish concert or an Eagles game."

Kenney has also been a strident critic of the dragnet created by Immigration and Customs Enforcement cooperation with local law enforcement, and backed successful activist efforts pushing the city to cut those ties.

"When two young Mexican kids get into a fistfight and get hauled off to the Fourth District and there's an ICE agent waiting in the lobby, that's not right," he said last year.

Kenney appears to be well-positioned in the upcoming Democratic primary, scheduled for May 19, considering growing criticism of mass incarceration and the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. His campaign states that levying heavy fines through quality-of-life broken windows policing imposes a "poverty tax," and that "policies like Stop-and-Frisk have alienated sections of the city from police."

At first blush, Kenney makes for an unlikely progressive. He is an Irish Catholic South Philadelphian whose white working-class base has traditionally supported harsh law-and-order measures. But he has also broken that mold, embracing a Chick-fil-A bashing social progressivism (he is a longtime and outspoken gay rights supporter) centered on policies that resonate across the diverse city that Philadelphia is today.

As a result, Kenney might scramble the racial math that so often determines Philly elections. As the leading white candidate, Kenney appears to be cutting into the black vote that Anthony Hardy Williams, a state senator and the leading African-American candidate, needs to win. Kenney's criminal justice reform record has allowed him to build a cross-race coalition in a city long known for conflict on the streets and racial allegiance at the ballot box. Just a few decades ago, white working-class voters rallied behind the successful mayoral campaigns of Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, an authoritarian who embraced “tough” policing and reportedly pledged to make “Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

Rapidly Shifting Campaign Issues

Criminal justice and policing started out as second-order topics in this year's mayoral race. The city's crisis-racked and long-underfunded schools, and the fight over so-called reform, were initially the marquee issues. Williams is backed by wealthy suburban pro-"school choice" financiers, while Kenney has the support of the teachers union and public school advocates (and cash-flush building trades unions). But in recent weeks, Williams appears to have fallen significantly behind despite the huge cash advantage wielded by the independent expenditure groups working on his behalf. And, in what looks a lot like a cynical last-ditch ploy for relevancy, he has tried to exploit the Black Lives Matter movement and improbably turn the cause of criminal justice reform to his advantage.

First, Williams proposed firing police officers who engage in "racist, sexist, or homophobic rhetoric" without the right to arbitration. This was a somewhat odd proposal. The failure to prosecute and permanently fire police officers for allegedly beating people up, committing sexual assault, robbing civilians, and committing perjury have long been the main problems related to disciplining bad cops.  

Then, Williams went nuclear, airing a television ad ripping Kenney for harsh law-and-order comments he made in the 1990s to paint his opponent as a pro-police candidate insensitive to black people's concerns. Kenney's comments were indeed ugly.

“We now have discussions, ironically, about no longer allowing police officers to use pepper gas. I mean, come on,” Kenney said at a time when he embraced a fairly conservative agenda. “You can't use the flashlights, you can't use the clubs on the head, you can't shoot anybody. What's next? Are we gonna hand them feather dusters?''

"He may not like these facts, but these are the facts. Any claim to the contrary is nothing more than an election year conversion," said Williams spokesperson Barbara Grant. "Unfortunately, Jim Kenney still sides with protecting police over protecting Philadelphians."

Then Williams shocked political observers and went after Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey who, despite widespread problems in the department, has remained an extremely popular figure throughout the city. Earlier this year, Williams had called Ramsey "an effective commissioner" whom he would like to keep on the job if elected. But last week, Williams announced that he would show him the door.

The Philadelphia Police Department is no stranger to abuse and corruption. But while Ramsey oversees stop-and-frisk and broken windows enforcement, the police chief has also been vocal in criticizing an arbitration system militantly guarded by the city's police union, which makes it very hard to fire bad cops. He’s also has been praised for his light-touch policing of major protests in the city. In sum, Ramsey is a complicated figure but certainly fair game for criticism (last August, he suggested that my colleague Ryan Briggs and I, who live in West Philadelphia, were out of touch suburbanites after we published an investigation into broken windows policing in West Philadelphia). The problem with Williams' move is that it reeks of political cynicism.

"For me, the police commissioner is a fine man," Williams said recently. "But people have to be replaced when they stand for a [stop-and-frisk] policy that people in the community simply don't trust."

Whatever Williams' motives, the strategy has apparently failed. An independent poll released today was shocking and stark: Kenney now leads with a staggering 42 percent of likely voters, with Williams garnering just 15 percent. And Williams is "in a statistical dead heat" with Kenney among black voters. With likely voters as a whole, Williams is now polling right alongside former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, a war-on-crime relic who had long appeared to be running a long-shot third place.

Evolving Views, or Opportunism?

There is little debate that Kenney's nearly two decade-old comments were wrong—including from Kenney, who has forcefully disavowed them. There is, however, one issue that should give critics of police misconduct pause about Kenney's candidacy, and that is the fact that he received the endorsement of the city's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. Its president, John McNesby, suggested that protesters against police brutality were associated with "professional hate-mongers," and has staunchly defended officers accused of wrongdoing. Recently, McNesby called President Obama's 21st Century Policing Task Force, chaired by Ramsey, an effort to "appease the public" that resulted in "a lot of wasted paper."

It's hard to believe that the FOP would back Kenney without some level of confidence that he would leave the broken arbitration system intact. Many police officers might support politicians ending broken windows, stop-and-frisk and the drug war. But police unions are at their most guarded when it comes to protecting their members' jobs and defending them in court. Kenney, according to campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt, agrees with Ramsey that it is too hard to fire bad cops in Philly and says that "bringing about the serious, widespread reform outlined in the DOJ's report [on Philadelphia police shootings] will require a mayor who has a working relationship with the FOP."

However he may handle the FOP if elected mayor, Kenney's evolution into a progressive has been public, long-running and to many observers seems entirely sincere. Much of Williams' concern for criminal justice reform, by contrast, is a creature of the past few weeks' campaign politics. He was initially seen as a frontrunner but hit the campaign trail looking more like a rudderless empty suit. And so, only in the immediate aftermath of recent protests around the country, he has picked up police brutality as a central campaign platform.

Williams' legislative record has been decently progressive on criminal justice in recent years. But he has never taken the lead to push for substantive change. For example, there is a long-shot bill in the state senate to legalize recreational marijuana. Williams is not a co-sponsor. (Kenney supports the full-stop legalization of recreational marijuana, telling me last year that "It’s an organic … Right now, what’s on the street, from what I understand, a lot of it’s chemically enhanced—which is bad. If you get a nice, pure, clean crop, and you package it right and sell it right for the right price and tax it … I mean, Amsterdam survives.”)

And Williams, like Kenney, has a complicated past, including his membership in a bipartisan group of legislators that among other things advocated quality-of-life broken windows policing during the 1990s years of crime hysteria, as Will Bunch points out in the Philadelphia Daily News.

But Bunch doesn't quite get Williams right, partially because he fails to describe the complexity of his legislative record during those years. Williams voted to back tough-on-crime measures that lowered the amount of heroin necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence and to make it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits. He also missed a vote to expand the drug-free school zone act. But he voted no on then-popular legislation enacting harsh mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders and making it harder to commute sentences of life without parole and death.

In the 1990s, Philadelphia was caught up in a war on crime cheered on by many constituents, both black and white. Crime (both real and imagined), fear and opportunism consumed much of the country's political spectrum—Democrats like Williams and Kenney included.

When Williams showed up at the recent “Philadelphia is Baltimore” rally, a speaker appeared to castigate him from the stage, telling politicians not to use the rally as a "photo op." It's now clear that Williams didn't take the advice.

Black Lives Matter and the Future of Municipal Politics

In the coming years, the Black Lives Matter movement will no doubt have an impact on local city elections nationwide, where many decisions about policing and prosecution get made. Philadelphia's mayoral race provides an early clue to the movement's growing clout—and how politicians will seek, perhaps cynically, to exploit it. Turnout in this election, like other recent mayoral elections nationwide, will likely be low. In the future, the movement has the potential to not only change the debate but also to expand the electorate.

The changing political landscape has already made long-time former District Attorney Abraham a likely impossible choice for 2015. In the 1990s, she was dubbed the nation's "deadliest DA" for vociferously seeking the death penalty, and has been criticized for turning a blind eye to police abuses and perjury. In February, the Inquirer reported that Abraham all of a sudden supported marijuana decriminalization. The prior month, she was reported to staunchly oppose it, telling Philadelphia Magazine that society was going to "pay a heavy cost for all this fun and games." In reality, it is political opportunism that may turn out to cost the most.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. But sometimes those concessions are extraordinarily misleading.

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