By David Gambacorta
Philadelphia Daily News.
A LOCAL WOMAN made the New York Times last week.
Happy Rockefeller — nee Margaretta Fitler Murphy, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Bryn Mawr family and the wife of the late New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — died at 88 on May 19, the same day ex-City Councilman Jim Kenney won Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary.
A large chunk of the Times’ obituary on Rockefeller focused on a 1963 scandal that sent shockwaves through the political world: Happy and Nelson — two divorcees — got married.
Wait, that was a scandal? Yeah. Seriously.
Rockefeller was a leading contender to be the Republican presidential nominee in 1964. But prominent Republicans, including President George W. Bush’s grandfather, Connecticut’s then-Sen. Prescott Bush, recoiled at the idea of giving a divorcee — oh, the horror! — the coveted nomination. It went to Barry Goldwater instead.
And that brings us back to Kenney.
If he goes on to win the fall election as expected, he’ll be a mayor without a first lady, the first in recent memory.
Kenney and his wife, Maureen, have been separated for years.
He acknowledged as much after entering the mayor’s race in February, but otherwise has shied away from discussing his private life.
A largely ceremonial role that has in recent years been filled by smart, accomplished and independent women — Lisa Nutter, Naomi Post Street, Marjorie Rendell — will be vacant.
And voters couldn’t care less.
But it hasn’t always been that way, as Happy and Nelson Rockefeller’s love story shows.
“I don’t think you have to go back that far to find a time when family was a character component for an elected official,” said Sam Katz, who recently nixed a planned fourth run for mayor.
A lengthy August 2014 article on the website nextcity.org explored the evolution of the role that first spouses fill.
The story, “Married to the Mayor,” contended that voters have long identified with mayors — and, by extension, their families — in a deeply personal way, but most recognize that times have changed.
The Kodachrome image of a Kennedyesque clan that so many elected officials have tried to replicate (cough, John Edwards, cough) just doesn’t carry the same weight that it used to.
Divorced, single and gay people have held office, and the world has kept on spinning.
“The days of one of the qualifications to be an elected official are that you have to be married with 2.2 kids are gone,” said political guru Neil Oxman.
“I don’t think that anybody thinks about that stuff in any way, shape or form. But that’s not to say that you can’t use your family in a campaign.”
Oxman was the brains behind the 2007 TV ad that many felt helped then-former-Councilman Michael Nutter win a competitive Democratic mayoral primary. The ad starred Nutter’s then-12-year-old daughter, Olivia.
Nutter’s election was a feel-good story — remember when people lined up outside City Hall to shake his hand? — and his photogenic family was a big part of it.
But they’re people, not props, and life under the mayoral microscope isn’t exactly a dream.
“I think I was rather naive. I thought I could continue to pursue my career based on my work experience and credentials,” said Naomi Post Street, the wife of former Mayor John Street.
She was the head of Safe and Sound, a children’s advocacy and anti-violence program, when her husband was elected mayor in 1999.
She had spent the prior decade working in Common Pleas Court, rising to deputy chief in charge of juvenile probation.
“My career was far more important ,” Street said. “You have to learn to navigate a lot of issues. I do think it’s more complicated for women.”
She pointed to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, as an example of an unmarried politician who enjoyed continued success.
“It’s less important than it might have been many years ago,” she said. “The quality and character of the person is what matters, and I think Jim [Kenney] is an extraordinary man with a vision for the city.”
It’s unclear if Kenney will be able to keep his private life completely private once he becomes mayor.
In the short term, it might be easier to have his mom be his plus-one at ritzy political functions that require one.
After all, the political world is small and gossipy, and it doesn’t take long for speculative whispers to make their way into print, as plenty of elected officials can attest.
Kenney’s spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, declined to comment for this article.
Being mayor is a 24/7 gig. The pace and the venomous criticism that the city’s chief executive inevitably encounters can take a toll on the first family.
“Everyone feels licensed to say whatever they want about people in public life, especially mayors,” Katz said. “I think it’s a hard thing for a family, personally.”
Katz said his wife, Connie, was on board with his Republican mayoral runs in 1991 and 1999.
He felt like a long shot the first time out, but a legitimate contender the second time around.
“Connie was enthusiastic about it,” he said. “She thought I was going to be a good mayor, and she thought our family was going to be able to handle it.”
She advised him against an ill-fated rematch against Street in 2003, and cautioned him to think carefully about jumping into the mayor’s race this year.
Katz said Kenney didn’t need an ad with a spouse or a child to get him over the hump during the primary race.
“He was humanized in other ways that had nothing to do with his family,” he said. “He was able to demonstrate the breadth of his personality through the policy positions he had taken, and that made him very accessible.”