The Accidental Mayor Of Mobile City
For 8.5 years, Kenny Phillips lived a life of luxury. As Alex Rodriguez’s personal chef, Kenny kept the baseball legend and all his famous guests fed. He had a big house near Dallas and apartments in New York City and Miami.
“The lifestyle was incredible,” Kenny says in this episode. “Even in Miami, golly, Coconut Grove and going to Miami Beach. To me, that that was the bomb, man. And I had a Jeep Wrangler, top down, driving down Miami Beach with Frank Sinatra, ‘Come fly away, come fly away with me.’”
Kenny Phillips' chef headshot.
But it wasn’t just the lavish lifestyle Kenny loved. Over the years, he grew close to the family. He helped Alex’s wife, Cynthia, with their daughters.
“She was like, ‘Boy, we're going to keep you around until the girls have gone through college,’” Kenny says.
So when Alex and Cynthia got divorced, Kenny’s whole life was upended. Not only had he lost a family of sorts, but he was also suddenly out his six-figure income. He moved back to Texas and was forced to begin downsizing.
This is how Kenny ended up in Mobile City.
Mobile City is a city in Texas made up exclusively of mobile homes. When he first decided to move there, Kenny wasn’t sure what to expect. But he was pleasantly surprised. Good amount of space. Nice neighbors. Affordable. When his own marriage ended, Kenny started dedicating his time to his community, pitching in at his church and joining the city council.
After he’d attended a few city council meetings, the mayor of Mobile City pulled him aside and said that she was going to retire, and that he could be the new mayor.
“And I went, ‘What?’” Kenny remembers. “She goes, ‘Well, nobody else wants to be the mayor.’ And she said, ‘So tag, you're it.’”
Kenny Phillips being sworn in as mayor of Mobile City.
To hear the full story, listen to “The Accidental Mayor Of Mobile City” now.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny Phillips remembers the day, clearly. The way you do when unexpected moments change your life. It was the fall of 2013. Kenny was living in Rockwall, Texas, near Dallas in a nice big house. Three bedrooms. 2,200 square feet. And he remembers standing in the empty kitchen staring sadly at his gas stove. Kenny’s a chef. He loved that stove. It had all the bells and whistles.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I think chefs really pride themselves in their equipment, and I really wanted to take it with me, but I couldn't because I had no place to put it, and so that was kind of a bummer.
STEPHANIE FOO: The stove reminded Kenny of the life he once led. Chef to the rich and famous in New York. He fed everyone who was anyone: Jay-Z, Warren Buffet, so many others. But then he lost everything in a bad divorce. So now Kenny had to move. As he stood there, his friends from the Rockwall Presbyterian Church helped lug his boxes out of the house. It wasn’t easy deciding what went in those boxes. It never is when you’re downsizing. Eventually, Kenny dragged himself out of the kitchen. He, his family and their friends drove down the road to a small mobile home, in a town of mobile homes, called Mobile City. In just a few years, Kenny had gone from posh Park Avenue to a trailer park.
STEPHANIE FOO: What can you see outside your window right now?
KENNY PHILLIPS: It's fairly nice. I mean, there's a little bit of a lawn in between each mobile home and kids playing. And plus, it's a very quiet neighborhood.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did you ever think that this would be your view?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Never.
STEPHANIE FOO: So what happened?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Well.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, a personal chef to the stars who became mayor.
KENNY PHILLIPS: If you walk down my driveway a little bit, and you look to the right you can see I-30.
STEPHANIE FOO: Mobile City sits 30 miles to the east of Dallas. As a city, it’s a little unusual. There are only about 200 residents. They all live in the same trailer park as Kenny. There are 60 mobile homes, a taco stand and a liquor store. In fact, Mobile City incorporated in 1990 just so it could legalize liquor sales and tax them.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Over to the left of that a bit, we have this patio area. And I just bought new picnic tables cause the old wooden ones were all falling apart.
STEPHANIE FOO: The town didn’t exist when Kenny was growing up on the other side of Dallas in a working class town called Azle. All Kenny wanted growing up was to be safe and secure in a cozy home with his parents and brothers. But when he was 5, his father left.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Why did my dad leave? I mean, I understand maybe that him and my mom didn't get along, but wasn't I worth hanging around for? So that was a struggle.
STEPHANIE FOO: Things got better when his mother married his stepfather, a kind man who coached his Little League team. But a few years later, he left, too. Kenny’s mom had to sell the house. He was so upset, he stormed onto the lawn and destroyed the for sale sign.
KENNY PHILLIPS: So for the longest time I was, I wouldn't say bitter, but it caused me to ask those questions. “What's the meaning of life? What am I here for? What is going on? And do I have any control at all over what's happening in my life?”
STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny’s only anchor during those destructive divorces was his grandma. She cooked up a storm in their small kitchen: new recipes and family favorites. And Kenny sat nearby, amazed by how she could transform simple ingredients into tasty dishes.
STEPHANIE FOO: And what did she make that was her comfort food?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Oatmeal and pancakes. Oh man. Her pancakes were great.
STEPHANIE FOO: After high school, Kenny took a job as a lowly prep cook at a hotel restaurant. But after shifts, he stuck around to watch the head chefs whip up gourmet dishes the same way he had watched his grandma.
KENNY PHILLIPS: It’s like creating a piece of art on a plate. Not only could you see the art, sense the art, smell the art. But then, people that it was served to, began to eat the art.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny worked at a bunch of different Dallas restaurants. By the time he was 32, he’d been a chef for 9 years. And he had worked his way up to head chef. He decided to strike out on his own as a caterer and landed a job in the cafeteria of a seminary. The clientele wasn’t fancy. He cooked for priests and their theology students, but it was very satisfying.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I was not only being able to serve them and help nourish them. But in the word it says, "Feed my sheep." So I felt like I was doing what I was created to do.
STEPHANIE FOO: You're doing the Lord's work.
KENNY PHILLIPS: That's right. That's what I truly felt like, indeed.
STEPHANIE FOO: What did that mean for you?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Well, it meant a lot because if you find something that you love then you'll enjoy going to work every day. And the added benefit was not only was I enjoying what I was doing, but you felt you had a sense of purpose, a real sense of purpose, almost like it was a calling.
STEPHANIE FOO: And then Kenny received an interesting offer. A friend told him about someone looking for a personal chef. He went to the interview and it was kind of mysterious. He was asked things like, “Can you cook high protein meals? How about low fat dishes? Healthy carbs?”
KENNY PHILLIPS: I answered all their questions. And I said, "Look, I don't know who this is." And then they told me, "Well, this is a gentleman by the name of Alex Rodriguez." And I thought to myself, “OK, Alex.” I didn't know Alex Rodriguez from Pudge Rodriguez. OK?
STEPHANIE FOO: Pudge Rodriguez was the starting catcher for the Texas Rangers, and definitely no slouch. But, Alex Rodriguez was something else. Most people know him as A-Rod. One of the greatest to ever play the game. A hall of famer who now ranks fourth in career home runs behind legends like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. And, so here’s Kenny, a working-class guy cooking for the highest-paid baseball player back in 2000.
KENNY PHILLIPS: You know, we'd just talk like normal people. Buddies from the baseball team would come over, and after lunch, you'd hear him running out the front door, yelling, "Shotgun, shotgun," and jump into his bright canary yellow Hummer to drive off to the baseball park. And so to me, he was just a down to earth, young guy.
STEPHANIE FOO: He was only 25 years old and a big fan of Kenny’s cooking, especially his chicken and shrimp pasta with creamy sauce.
KENNY PHILLIPS: To the point where I got concerned, because that's a lot of starch and it's a lot of high carbohydrates. And I was like, "Man, it's going to slow you down. But I knew how to prepare things, that if I felt like he was getting too much of that high carb I would cut back on the pasta and replace it with, we'd do a whole grain rice dish one day, or we'd do sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny spent 10-12 hours a day at A-Rod’s house when the team played home games, and he became close with the family, especially Alex’s wife Cynthia.
KENNY PHILLIPS: She was like, "Boy, we're going to keep you around until the girls have gone through college." They had had two children, and I’d pretty much, I wouldn't say raised their oldest daughter, but I was there with her a lot of the time. And Cynthia would say, "Would you go down to Babies R Us with me," and different things.
STEPHANIE FOO: In Texas, A-Rod added to his reputation as baseball’s marquee player. And it gave Kenny a bit of a rep too. On nights out, his friends bragged about him to strangers.
KENNY PHILLIPS: People would introduce me and say, "This is my friend Kenny. Oh, he happens to be the private chef for A-Rod."
STEPHANIE FOO: What did that feel like?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Well, I think feeling gratified is an understatement. It was exuberant.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the summer of 2004, A-Rod was traded to the New York Yankees. So Alex and Cynthia relocated to a massive three-bedroom condo overlooking Park Avenue. He rented his own apartment, but when the team was in town, Kenny cooked day and night at their place. He says the kitchen was a luxury he’d never seen. Everything was commercial-grade, top of the line. A chef’s dream. On off nights, A-Rod invited over all kinds of celebrities and billionaires like future president Donald Trump. Kenny fed them all, and while he was no millionaire, he was making good money for him. Six figures. He bought a house for his family back in Rockwall. He regularly flew his wife and kids up to see Broadway shows. And there was an apartment in Miami. Security for Kenny started to mean something different.
KENNY PHILLIPS: The lifestyle was incredible. Even in Miami, golly, Coconut Grove and going to Miami Beach. To me that that was the bomb, man. And I had a Jeep Wrangler, top down, driving down Miami Beach with Frank Sinatra, “Come fly away, come fly away with me.”
STEPHANIE FOO: We think that with that amount of money comes security with your home. Do you think you fell into that trap of belief?
KENNY PHILLIPS: I think so. Yeah. I did.
STEPHANIE FOO: In 2008, things started to change. A-Rod seemed preoccupied. Wasn’t focused. Weirdly, his taste in music had changed. Kenny says A-Rod listened to the same Madonna CD over and over.
KENNY PHILLIPS: And I started seeing these books. It was some kind of religious book. It's called Kabbalah or something. I don't know if that's the name of it, but I saw-
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah. Kabbalah, yeah.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Yeah. And I was going, what is this? I had seen this deterioration in relationships happen too many times, and I saw the signs. So I'd pull Cynthia aside a couple times. And she goes, "Oh, don't worry about it. It's just a phase. He always goes through these phases."
STEPHANIE FOO: Turns out, this wasn’t just a phase. A-Rod and Madonna were seen hanging out more than a couple of times. And eventually Cynthia filed for divorce. When she left New York for Miami, all of the staff she had hired were let go. Including Kenny.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I poured all my efforts and energy into doing that for eight and a half years.
STEPHANIE FOO: So it was almost like losing members of your own family?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Yeah. It was like going through a divorce myself all over again. Yeah.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was the third time a divorce cost Kenny his family. There was the divorce between his mom and dad, his mom and stepdad, and now this. It was really triggering. And costly.
KENNY PHILLIPS: When you lose a six-figure income like I was making, it's a train wreck and there's casualties and it's horrific. And it's a false sense of security. Just like here I'm working along. I've got a good income. I'm feeling pretty high on the hog and then this family, that's really not my family, their home breaks up. And so that all goes away.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny let go of his New York apartment and moved back to his family in Rockwall. He picked up a couple of cooking gigs, but then his back gave out. He worked less and less, while the bills grew and grew. One by one, he sold off the things he had accumulated when he was making good money. Basically, all that was left was the house. And soon Kenny and his wife realized that would have to go too. They looked at rental properties but those were too expensive. Then Kenny remembered a trailer park he’d driven by a few times on his way to get beer at the Chilly Mart. But he’d never lived in a trailer park and had a cynical view of them.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I even remember making the phone call to the leasing agent at the time and said, "I just want to check before I move my family out there, what kind of people live there?"
STEPHANIE FOO: Because you thought it was going to be what?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Deadbeats and just slum living and broken-down cars and junk everywhere.
STEPHANIE FOO: But when he showed up, he was pleasantly surprised. Small homes but with three bedrooms. Not bad. More space than living on top of other tenants in an apartment building. The neighbors seemed nice. And the price was right: $750 a month. Kenny thought, “this could work,” but his wife wasn’t as optimistic. The change in lifestyle was too much for her, and she grew frustrated with Kenny’s inability to work. His back never healed.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did you miss the lifestyle?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Everybody would know I'd be just talking through my hat if I said no. Yeah, you miss the lifestyle.
STEPHANIE FOO: They tried couples counseling. They went to see their church pastor. But by 2017 it was over. And it left Kenny alone in a mobile home cooking over a much smaller stove. The next year was pretty quiet. Kenny had a lot of time on his hands, so he pitched in more at his church, fixed up the mobile home, got to know some of the neighbors. Just lived life like a retiree in a small town. And then, in 2018, the mayor of Mobile City, Dana Lawson, asked Kenny to join the city council. Lawson said all he would have to do is go to a short monthly meeting so Kenny said, why not?
KENNY PHILLIPS: Alright, I call to order the county commission meeting for the city of Mobile City. Commissioner Berry, do we have a quorum?
COMMISSIONER BERRY: Yes.
KENNY PHILLIPS: We do have a quorum …
STEPHANIE FOO: If you’ve been to a city council meeting in a larger town, it’s likely there were several council members sitting in a semi-circle engaged in long debates. In Mobile City, meetings consisted of three people in Mayor Lawson’s trailer. If you walked by, you might think she had company over for iced tea, but there’s real municipal business going on there.
KENNY PHILLIPS: OK, first order of business. There’s no citizens here so no citizen comments.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny went to a few of those meetings, and then Mayor Lawson took him aside and said ...
KENNY PHILLIPS: “I’m going to retire. I’m going to resign. And you can be the mayor.” And I went, “What?” She goes, “Well, nobody else wants to be the mayor.” And she said, “So tag, you’re it.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Even in a small town like Mobile City, being mayor brings with it responsibility: managing budgets, creating and enforcing bylaws and ordinances, and negotiating contracts for services like garbage collection. Things that directly affected the wellbeing of the residents. And unlike 90% of Mobile City, Kenny couldn’t speak Spanish. There were lots of things he didn’t know how to do, and yet he signed on.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Well, I’m sure if I knew what I was getting myself into it would be different because it was an eye opener, to say the least, but it was exciting in that I had never held a position before like that.
STEPHANIE FOO: Exciting, but Kenny had a lot to learn. He went to council meetings in nearby cities like Fate and Royce City.
KENNY PHILLIPS: And my goodness, it blew me away how professional and how Robert’s Rules of Order they were doing in it. I was like, “Wow.”
STEPHANIE FOO: He says he received a warm welcome from the other mayors. They showed him the ropes, encouraged him, and the rest Kenny learned by taking online classes that teach people how to be an elected official. He also put a language app on his phone, to learn Spanish. That’s a work in progress.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I think there were life skills that I learned from a young age being in the kitchen, because it was kind of like the military in the kitchen. Whereas now my heart has changed towards people. Before, it was like back of the room, back of the house, I do what I do, and you either like it or you don’t. Now, it’s like I’m out there right in the dining room, right in the community, right in the neighborhood, talking with the people.
STEPHANIE FOO: Residents go to Kenny for mayor type stuff like bylaws that aren’t being followed, but they also go to him for advice and a friendly ear.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Like Hilda, the young lady that has the two teenage boys. Sometimes young moms with two boys, they don’t know how to handle it all. There’s no owner’s manual for how to raise a couple of boys. So, she came several times for guidance about: “One of my boys did this,” or “How do I give him direction?” So, we’d sit and talk a lot of times. I raised two boys, so I felt like maybe I had a little bit of insight, a little bit of wisdom I could share.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Kenny adapted to his new role pretty smoothly. Life in sleepy Mobile City chugged along. But then an actual political controversy blew up and it was up to Kenny to get in front of it. Mobile City is a city, but the trailer park is privately held. A couple years after Kenny became mayor, a new company bought the trailer park. They own and manage trailer parks in many parts of America. Kenny quickly noticed the new owners were ignoring city ordinances and building codes so new structures were going up without inspection. And then there was the rent. As soon as the new owners came in, Kenny says they started charging residents for utilities on top of rent. Rents up $200, $300. The median household income for residents in Mobile City is around $29,000. Not enough to absorb the rent hike. So, people started moving out.
KENNY PHILLIPS: These people have nobody to stand up for them. They have nobody to fight for them or to say enough is enough. Even though the city can't demand a way that a business should operate, you can certainly take them to task, saying, "This is wrong. This is unethical to treat the citizens of Mobile City this way.”
STEPHANIE FOO: At the next city council meeting, where normally just the 3 council members and the mayor show up, 25 people squeezed into Kenny’s mobile home.
KENNY PHILLIPS: And I was just floored.
STEPHANIE FOO: The citizens aired their grievances, and Kenny rose to the challenge. For the next several months, he filed complaints with the public utilities commission, and the council passed something like 200 ordinances making it harder for the new landlords to override policy. But they still did, and then they came for Kenny. He told me they questioned his mayor status and sued him. So Kenny turned around and sued them for every ordinance and building code they ignored, which came close to a million dollars. This wasn’t “we need a new stop sign” small-town politics. It was complicated. There were procedures to follow, lawsuits and corporate lawyers. But as the battle played out, Kenny noticed a change in himself.
KENNY PHILLIPS: That transformation, it was huge. And I think it's still going on now too.
STEPHANIE FOO: When you were talking about feeding the flock, it seems like you're feeding the flock again.
KENNY PHILLIPS: It does feel that way. It does. And I think at this point in my life too, a lot of what I do and who I am centers around my faith. Now, I'm not standing in a pulpit and preaching, feeding the word like that, but emotionally, psychologically to some degree, physically by helping in a way, I do feel that way.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the end, the new landlords capitulated, and an uneasy truce has been brokered, but the situation is ongoing.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Hi Maria Salina, how are you?
MARIA SALINA: Hi, I'm fine.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I just wanted to come and check with you and make sure everything is OK.
MARIA SALINA: I mean, it's not fair what they're trying to do and my neighbor, she told me the day before yesterday, she was taking pictures again.
KENNY PHILLIPS: So they're going to take a picture and tell you another $50 fine?
MARIA SALINA: Another $50.
KENNY PHILLIPS: OK, well you keep me posted. I'll stop by later.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kenny takes daily walks arounds Mobile City. It doesn't take long. There are only three streets. And people come up to him to say hello or to give him updates on how things are going. Kenny says he heard from lots of his neighbors about the pandemic. They were hit hard. There was also that historic winter storm that crippled Texas last winter. People lost jobs. Tensions flared. So Kenny passed an ordinance giving families $200 gift cards for groceries, and the response has been one of gratitude. It’s these kinds of conversations that are the highlights of Kenny’s mayorship.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Not that Alex and Cynthia's relationship that I had with them was flighty. But a lot of those people that I met, even Mr. Trump, I mean, I didn't have a sit-down conversation with him. I fed them dinner. "How did you like your dinner?" kind of thing and so forth whereas the relationships I have now have much more depth and much more sincerity to them.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah. It really seems like you have found your family, and you've finally found your home.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Yes. I'm so grateful and thankful. It is home.
KENNY PHILLIPS: How’s your mom?
BOY: My mom’s doing good. She’s just snoozing.
KENNY PHILLIPS: She is? Good, she needs it.
BOY: Saturday. Been working all week, dealing with my stuff.
KENNY PHILLIPS: That’s nothing.
STEPHANIE FOO: Despite his new life, in his new home, Kenny still remembers his time as A-Rod’s private chef. He wants to write a book: “Cooking for A-Rod.”
STEPHANIE FOO: You should do it, and then put it towards the mobile home park.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Yeah.
STEPHANIE FOO: The profit.
KENNY PHILLIPS: Man, I tell you if we, as a community, could put together the funds and buy this thing so that each person owns their own little piece of our city, that would be so cool.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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