Lynne Abraham’s Message: I’m Still Relevant!

And she made a convincing case at her formal campaign rollout.

Lynne Abraham

Lynne Abraham at the announcement of her mayoral campaign.

You’d think that a trailblazing female politician with nearly 20 years of service as district attorney would command the respect of the political class and punditocracy if she announced a bid for mayor.

And yet, in a lot of quarters, Lynne Abraham’s mayoral aspirations have been met with little more than snickers and wisecracks about her age (if victorious, Abraham would be 74 when sworn-in). It’s been five years since she retired, after all, and her tough-on-crime, death-penalty dealing persona feels like a real mismatch for today’s Philadelphia.

Today’s really-real campaign announcement (there have been, um, multiple announcements) at the Franklin Institute this afternoon seemed carefully designed to dispel the notion that Abraham was no longer relevant. And it actually worked pretty well.

Hundreds of Abraham’s supporters packed a room at the Franklin Institute for the announcement. On the dais, Abraham was vigorous and appealing. She was quite detailed on her plans if elected, seemed reasonably well-versed on the city’s contemporary challenges, such as school funding and the prospect of selling PGW (she did, though, duck a question from Newsworks reporter Holly Otterbein on her feelings about the decriminalization of marijuana).

As she took questions from the press in an informal scrum after her announcement, Abraham looked perfectly in her element with the cameras and microphones jammed in her face. I was struck by the thought that her candidacy been badly underestimated.

On the other hand … the crowd was big and diverse, but it was also quite old. They were serenaded by a Mummers string band (playing the Rocky theme song as Abraham entered), which didn’t exactly scream new-fangled. And while Abraham’s demeanor was all charm and sunshine (there was no sign of the bitter Abraham the city saw in her last few years as DA), her take on the city’s direction felt dark and grim. Philadelphia has huge challenges, to be sure, but there are a lot of positive developments in the city. Abraham did mention some of those, but she spent considerably more time talking about various crises than she did outlining an optimistic future for Philadelphia. That could be a very difficult sell.

Abraham is also positioning herself as a change candidate. “For those who want to protect the status quo because it’s safe and comfortable, I’m not your candidate,” she said. On its face, that feels like a semi-ridiculous statement coming from a figure as well-worn and familiar as Abraham. She’s spent most of her life in the public eye. But Abraham has never been much loved by the party, and she threw a bunch of elbows at the political class in her announcement (the sharpest might have been her critique of councilmanic prerogative, the tradition delegating most meaningful development decisions to council members).

It was after the announcement, taking questions from the press, where Abraham’s political strengths were clearest. She took a sharp but indirect shot at education reform backer and candidate Anthony Williams (Abraham: “What I’m against is selling wholesale the entire public school system to the highest bidder.” Reporter: “Do you feel that’s happened in Philadelphia?” Abraham: “I think it could happen”). And when she got the inevitable question about her age, Abraham handled it neatly. “I’ve got lots of dreams, lots of energy. Nobody’s going to outrun me, out-campaign me, outtalk me, outthink me,” she said. “I’ve got more energy than all the other candidates put together. And you will see it on rich display during this campaign.”

Three-time mayoral candidate and documentary filmmaker Sam Katz showed up at the announcement. He predicted a highly competitive Democratic primary (which could play to Katz’s advantage; if he runs as an independent in the fall, as many predict, it would probably help to run against an opponent who’d been dinged badly in the primary) and praised Abraham while stopping well short of endorsing her.

“Her brains, her experience, her intelligence, her savvy, her independence are all qualities that set her apart,” Katz said. “She will not be the candidate of the establishment Democratic party.”

But does she have a shot at winning?

Abraham’s Electoral Pros

  • She’s got probably the best name recognition of the entire field. Love Abraham or hate her, a lot of Philadelphians know who she is. That can’t be said of many of the other announced and prospective candidates.
  • Abraham is a woman, running at a time when a lot of Philadelphians have begun to wonder why the city has never had a female mayor. That potential advantage is undercut some by Terry Gillen’s presence in the field, but I’d still call it a plus for Abraham’s campaign.
  • There are an awful lot of voters in this city who have already cast ballots for Abraham. For many voters, particularly older ones, there’s a comfort factor with Abraham. That might not be enough if the field featured more dynamic and exciting politicians, but so far it doesn’t.
  • The experience edge that Katz mentioned is real. Nobody in the race has won citywide on big campaigns as much as Abraham. She’s a pro, and the same cannot be said for the rest of the field.

The Cons

  • As for the other white candidates, the racial dynamics of the race are against Abraham. There clearly are candidates capable of crossing the city’s electoral racial divide (Mayor Nutter being the top example). And Abraham does have allies in the African-American community. But it’s hard to imagine a tough-on-crime, white former DA making big inroads.
  • Abraham won’t get much support from party powers either. She’s always had a tetchy relationship with the party, and that doesn’t look to have improved.
  • It’s unclear that she can raise the necessary money. There are informal networks of wealthy women in the city who are keen to see a female mayoral candidate do well. It’s not yet clear those networks are behind Abraham’s candidacy.
  • Her age. Abraham will be 74 years old when sworn-in, if she wins. That’s five years older than Ronald Reagan was when he took office. If she were to serve a full eight years, she’d retire at 82. Abraham didn’t look or feel like an aged figure today, but she is one.

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