Lynne Abraham: Down But Hardly Out
Last week, Lynne Abraham collapsed on live television. It was perhaps the single worst thing that could happen to a 74-year-old candidate who is often called “old-school”—exactly the sort of unpredictable setback the Abraham campaign just can’t afford. Unlike her two biggest rivals, Jim Kenney and Anthony Williams, Abraham lacks the backing of deep-pocketed super PACs. She’s got a long record in the District Attorney’s office that is vulnerable to attack. And she seems to be having some problems with fundraising.
But Philadelphia is a city that has a documented soft spot for fighters, and Abraham is nothing if not a fighter. Counting her out now is premature, if not foolish. She’s already done a lot to move past her collapse on the debate stage, as she showed me during a full day of campaigning last Sunday. Throughout, she brushed off concerns about both her health and fundraising, and pitched herself as an experienced, no-nonsense candidate who’s been delivering for Philadelphians her entire professional life.
At an election forum at a Northwest Philadelphia mosque, Abraham told an audience of about 100 African-Americans that she helped clean up the neighborhood decades ago by shutting down nuisance establishments.
“I’ve always been a problem solver, and there are big problems in this city,” she said, “and one of the biggest ones was that Ogontz Avenue was falling into disrepair and Wadsworth Avenue falling into disrepair.”
Abraham, who is Jewish, also told the crowd that she once lived nearby and worshipped at the building where the event was being hosted. Before it was a mosque, it was a synagogue, she said.
“This isn’t about me coming here one time. This is about me being here all the time,” she said. “I am a public servant of the neighborhoods, with the neighborhoods, and from the neighborhoods.”
At a Q&A session at the Philly Farm and Food Fest in Center City, the crowd was much different (a few dozen, mostly white millennials), but Abraham’s pitch was nearly the same: She has deep roots in the city’s neighborhoods and knows how to make the government bureaucracy work for residents.
When an audience member asked Abraham if she would support a project underway in the Norris Square neighborhood that transforms vacant lots into gardens, she said: “One of the big gardens in Norris Square, I gave it to the community! You know how? Because we confiscated the drug houses that used to be there, and had the city of Philadelphia knock them down, and donated them to the Norris Square Association.”
Abraham also attended two fundraisers Sunday, as well as a South Philly party thrown by the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia, where, again, she highlighted her 19 years as D.A.
On the campaign trail this weekend, her shtick seemed to work. Supporters on the street shouted at her, “You’ve got my vote!” and “Hi, Ms. Mayor!” At the mosque, when I asked resident Rahima Abdullah who she is supporting in the mayor’s race, she said, “Believe it or not, because of experience, Tony Williams or Lynne Abraham.” Then she added, “But I’m worried about her health.”
Abdullah was clearly referring to Abraham’s collapse at the debate. The Daily News headline the day afterward read, “After the fall: Is this the end for Lynne Abraham?”
Residents raised questions about Abraham’s health throughout the day. Scott Kaing, a deli owner, told Abraham at the South Philly bash that he saw her collapse on TV and was glad she looked better. “You’re a tough lady,” he said. “I told my daughter, ‘You should be like her.'”
Abraham, for her part, told me she paid a visit to her doctor after the collapse, and he told her she fainted simply because she was dehydrated. When I asked Abraham if she would release medical records to prove she’s in good shape, she said she would provide a note from her doctor, but added, “I don’t really have medical records. I’ve never been hospitalized. I take no medications. I’m not sick. I haven’t been sick in … I can’t tell you how many years.”
Abraham seemed in fine health Sunday—more than fine, actually. She was snappy and thoughtful, and at times, appeared to have more of a bounce in her step than some of her younger contenders. But she has to convince voters (and, perhaps more importantly, donors) of that, and more of them saw her collapse on TV than will likely see her on the trail.
That’s why it’s significant that Abraham says a TV ad campaign is coming. She wouldn’t provide any details about the size of the buy, but if it’s substantial, it could help her spread her message that when that when she falls, she gets back up and keeps fighting. Which isn’t an altogether terrible message.
So far, Abraham is the only one of the three top-tier mayoral candidates who doesn’t have an ad on the airwaves. That seems to be because she’s had a difficult time fundraising (she denies this, though, and says “it’s going well”). Her campaign only had about $196,000 in the bank at the end of 2014, which is a paltry amount for a mayoral contest. And even if Abraham is raising cash as quickly as Kenney and Williams, that may not be good enough, given that those candidates have big super PAC allies spending on their behalf and Abraham does not.
TV has already changed the race: A poll commissioned by the Abraham campaign in March found that she was the frontrunner in the mayoral race, including among black voters. By the time a pro-Kenney group paid for a poll to be conducted a few weeks later, with positive ads about Kenney and Williams all over the tube, those two were tied for first place and Abraham was bleeding support.
“If she is present on television, then her candidacy has life,” says Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia political consultant whose clients support both Kenney and Williams.
Can Abraham win even if she can’t hope to match the money of the Kenney and Williams super PACs? Maybe so. She has far more name recognition than they do. An Abraham campaign ad could also flip the script and attack Kenney and Williams for being “in the hip pocket of big interests,” as she puts it.
Not that Abraham isn’t vulnerable to attack ads herself. Kenney or Williams or the super PACs supporting them can easily go after her record as the “deadliest D.A.” and a perhaps too-tough-on-crime drug warrior. But could anti-Abraham ads backfire? “If you’re going to run negative ads on a 70-year-old lady, the optics of that aren’t good,” said Ceisler.
Still, the mayor’s race has increasingly seemed like a fight between a rising Kenney and a rising Williams. If that narrative holds much longer, Abraham will be in big trouble. Voters like to side with winners, and if it starts to look like she can’t win, her support could fall away in chunks.
But right now, at least, that narrative isn’t locked in. It’s almost become cliché to say, but it bears repeating: Michael Nutter was once the underdog in the 2007 mayoral race — and he, too, was late to put out TV ads.