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Credit: Dan Spinelli

With less than a month until the primary election, a recent Democratic mayoral debate took a turn for the negative.

The debate was hosted Thursday afternoon at Saint Joseph’s University and aired on FOX 29 in the evening.

The six candidates were combative throughout, with most of the vitriol reserved for the frontrunners, former City Councilman Jim Kenney and State Sen. Anthony H. Williams.

Former State Sen. Milton Street — who lacks key endorsements and financial support — wasted no time targeting Williams. Street criticized Hardy Williams Academy, a charter school founded by Williams in 1999, for its poor academic performance and financial issues.

After calling Williams a “fool,” Street said, “[He] couldn’t even successfully manage an 800-person charter school.”

While Williams was board chairman of the school, it failed for three years to meet the federal benchmarks set up under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. In 2012, the Mastery Charter School Network, which runs 17 schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, assumed control of Hardy Williams Academy.

“If you’re going to state facts, know your facts,” Williams later said in a fiery rebuttal to Street. He clarified Hardy Williams Academy’s takeover as a “partnership” with Mastery, and reasserted the goodwill many students have for the school.

Williams has fiercely rejected his characterization as the “charter guy” in the local media. “I stand on a stage today where everybody supports charters,” he said.

All six candidates expressed a necessity for charter schools in some capacity, though Kenney argued most strongly for the state to reimburse the school district for the cost of new charter schools.

Other mudslinging came from former City Solicitor Nelson Diaz toward Kenney. While on the topic of crime and police relations, Diaz recalled that nearly 20 years ago, Kenney angrily suggested “cutting off the hand” of Carlos Jimenez, a murderer convicted of a double homicide.

“He has no regard for human beings,” Diaz said in reference to Kenney’s statement. Upon Kenney’s insistence that he has changed these views, Diaz reiterated, “Which Kenney are you electing?”

Earlier this week, the Latinos United for Political Empowerment — a group of politicians from Philadelphia’s 7th District — surprisingly endorsed Kenney for mayor. Their snub of Diaz, the only Latino candidate in the race, could very well have motivated his attacks on Kenney.

Diaz did not shy away from other controversial comments during the debate. During a lightning round session near the end, moderator and FOX 29 anchor Lucy Noland asked the candidates if they supported legalizing marijuana. Kenney and Oliver both said they supported it, while Abraham, Williams and Street declared that it was a state issue.

Diaz said of marijuana legalization — point blank — “Yes. I want some.”

Other highlights from the lightning round included a question regarding the “Fight for $15” minimum wage campaign. All six candidates uniformly voiced their support to raise the minimum wage to $15, a major boost for protestors around the city who organized last Wednesday to push for the initiative.

With the May 19 primary only a few weeks away, the Democratic candidates appear to be in a three-way tie. A poll released on Thursday from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which has openly supported Kenney in the race — gave the former Councilman the lead in the race with 26 percent of the vote. Williams trails him by one point with 25 percent, while Abraham holds 22 percent of the vote. Eighteen percent of the 587 voters polled remain undecided.

In a race largely influenced by poor voter turnout, it is telling that Kenney leads Williams (37 to 23 percent) among voters “who consistently vote in city elections.”

The poll was conducted by GBA Strategies, a Washington, D.C. based polling firm, on behalf of AFSCME.

Also on Tuesday, Williams’ campaign released a website — — which lets voters “meet the real Jim Kenney and Lynne Abraham.” The website signals Williams’ foray into the world of negative advertising, which will presumably dominate the campaign up until the primary.

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