Lynne Abraham Would Be the Oldest Big City Mayor in Recent U.S. History

Does it matter?

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Lynne Abraham is 74 years old. Remarkably, she isn’t even the oldest candidate in this historically aged mayoral field. That distinction belongs to Milton Street, who is 75.

But Street has no chance at winning this election. Abraham does. If she’s victorious, she won’t just be Philadelphia’s first ever woman mayor. She’d also be the oldest Philadelphia mayor in at least 100 years, and possibly ever.

Still more remarkable? If Lynne Abraham is elected and she serves a single-four year term, she will become the oldest big city mayor in the U.S. in at least the last 65 years, a Citified analysis has found.

  • Since at least 1950, nobody as old as Abraham has ever been elected mayor of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston or Washington D.C. Indeed, the oldest mayor elected for a first term in those cities over that span was Baltimore’s Clarence Burns, sworn-in at 69 years of age.
  • Citified looked at 97 mayoralties in all. The median age of those mayors on their first day of office was 51. On the day they left office, their median age was 56.
  • There are only three mayors in that cohort, political giants Richard J. Daley of Chicago, Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, and Coleman Young of Detroit, who were as old or older as Abraham is right now when they finished their service in City Hall. Each served as mayor of their city for 20 years or more. The oldest, Young, served his last day at age 76. Abraham would reach that mark halfway through her first term.
  • Big-city mayors tend to be a slightly older now than they were in past decades. Still, the median age of active mayors of the nation’s 10-largest cities is 54 years old. Abraham has that mark beat by 20 years. If sworn-in next January, she’d be nine years older than the second-oldest mayor in that cohort, San Jose’s Chuck Reed.

It’s not just Abraham. In Sunday’s Inquirer, Chris Hepp had a terrific piece about the advanced age of the entire mayoral field. As Hepp wrote, barring a cataclysmic upset Doug Oliver victory, Philadelphia stands poised to elect its oldest ever first-term mayor, whether Abraham wins or not. Nelson Diaz would be 68, old enough to rank him as the fourth-oldest new mayor in nationwide cohort. At nearly 59, when he would be sworn-in, Anthony H. Williams would be among the top 20 oldest mayors in our comparison cities since 1950. Jim Kenney is closer to the middle of the pack, but he too would be older than any first term Philadelphia mayor in at least 65 years.

But none of the above really answers one of this campaign’s important questions: Should Abraham’s age count against her? When asked, she is vehement that it should not:

Citified:  You would be the oldest mayor in the city’s history…

Abraham: So what? So what?

Citified: …and in most cities’ histories.

Abraham: OK, so you’re going to tell the Pope he’s too old to be the head of 750 million Catholics, or the new President of Tunisia? They just elected their first democratically elected president in Tunisia, 88 years old.

Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, who is 76 or 77 (he’s 76), was just was reelected. Hillary Clinton is going to be 70, give or take (actually she’s 67). What is this ageism? … I have tremendous energy, I will run anybody to the ground… All my marbles are working. I have total health, total dedication. I have nothing to divert me from this job, 24/7. Whatever my age is, it is. That’s it. It’s not an issue for me. It may be an issue for some people. It’s hardly an issue for me.

Citified: I think the concern from some people is that you won’t get the city as it exists today, I think that’s what it’s about.

Abraham: I’ll tell you what I think it is… I think it’s not only ageism, but it’s discrimination against women… Nobody says to Warren Buffett, “Hey, you’re 85. Give it up, Warren.” (Buffet is 84). And his sidekick, Charlie Munger, being 87 or 88 (Munger is 91)… Tell Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger they’re too old to run Berkshire Hathaway. [laughs] No, you’re not going to do that, but you’ll tell it to a woman. That’s really what it is. It’s rampant discrimination against women, and it’s ageism against women. See, the older men, they’re wise, even though women outlive men.

Citified: By a lot.

Lynne: Yeah. We outlive you a lot… I have to be honest with you. I know I’m older, but I’m not old. I think this long conversation is an example. I could talk to you for another three hours and wouldn’t get tired. I don’t get tired.

If I didn’t think I could do the job, I wouldn’t do it. This is not about vanity. I don’t need a pension. I don’t need a salary. I have money.. I get paid every two weeks… But this is something I know I can do.

Citified: Do you think you’d seek a second term, if victorious?

Abraham: If I am healthy and well, absolutely. I’m going in this with that notion, I’m going to be here for two terms. Not thinking about one term, oh no, no, no, no. I’m thinking of two terms. If I feel the way I feel now…and by the way, men have heart attacks at 48. Sorry.

It is impossible to spend more than a few moments with Lynne Abraham and not leave convinced that she has more than enough vigor to be mayor. Abraham is nothing short of a dynamo, and her incredibly rich life experience is an asset.

But there are reasons beyond ageism and sexism that people dwell on Abraham’s age, and not Jerry Brown’s or Hillary Clinton’s.

California Governor Jerry Brown is probably the nation’s highest-profile advocate for high-speed rail, and he’s prone to saying stuff like this: “I envision a wide range of initiatives: more distributed power, expanded rooftop solar, micro-grids, an energy imbalance market, battery storage, the full integration of information technology and electrical distribution, and millions of electric and low-carbon vehicles.”

Lynne Abraham, on the other hand, won’t use email and, when asked what her economic development strategy is, says city schools need to train kids in the trades: “Tool and die makers. Drillers. I don’t know. Punch press operators. The stuff that aircraft companies and railroad companies might need.”

Clinton, meanwhile, may be out of office but she is also omnipresent. Her profile remained as huge as ever after she resigned as Secretary of State. When Abraham left the district attorney’s office in January, 2010, she went off and quietly practiced law largely outside the public eye. The last we saw of Abraham, she was retiring, not gearing up to run for mayor.

More than anything, though, it is Abraham’s enduring persona as a mid-1990s drug warrior that makes some wonder if she is too old to be Philadelphia’s mayor. Her affinity for the death penalty, her disdain for the decriminalization of marijuana, her remarks suggesting that maybe booze prohibitionists had the right idea… Abraham comes across as a veteran of the old urban wars, a candidate hardened by a career in the battling in the trenches of a violent city in decline.

But that’s not what Philadelphia is today. For Abraham to put to rest concerns about her age, she’ll have to prove that she understands what Philadelphia has become, and that she is capable of looking forward and not just behind.

[On mobile devices, the chart below is best viewed in landscape mode.]

[Our analysis includes the five largest U.S. cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston, as well as smaller cities that in past decades were among the top 10 biggest U.S. cities. The analysis doesn’t include some cities now in the top 10, such as San Diego and Phoenix, because birthdate information on the mayors of those cities in past decades was not readily available.]